Company is recycling people, too New firm offers help in solving two of city's most pressing problems

March 20, 1991|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff

Mike Pivec looks at the small mountain of discarded tin cans, plastic soda bottles and other recyclables in need of sorting and wonders out loud how to tackle it.

"Where there's a will there's a way," he says over and over.

The phrase has a dual meaning for his fledgling company in eastern Baltimore County, which is trying to catch the recycling wave. The company also is offering homeless and otherwise needy people a chance to demonstrate the will to better themselves.

Most of Environmental Recycling Concepts' work force is made up of homeless or formerly homeless men and women. A majority of them have stayed for varying amounts of time at the Baltimore Rescue Mission. Some have worked their way out of the mission and into apartments or rented rooms.

Pivec, 40, and his wife and business partner, Barbara, 35, are recovering alcoholics celebrating years of sobriety. They know what it's like to be down, they say.

"We want each and every one of these people to have an opportunity," Barbara Pivec says.

As she talks, she weaves through the company's spacious warehouse in Rossville where discarded government documents, newsprint and other material is sorted and bundled for recycling by other companies. She and her husband want the company to be labor-intensive, so they can help as many people as possible, she says.

About 80 tons of recyclables are processed there each week. The Pivecs say they work seven days a week and don't yet draw a salary. The 13 full-time employees usually work five-day weeks and are paid $4.50 an hour to start.

The company was started in October after the Pivecs' now-defunct advertising firm lost some key contracts. The workers are given a chance to gain self-sufficiency, if they want it.

"They can work as much as they want to work and as hard as they want to work," says Benjamin Merriweather, 45, the company's foreman who lived at the mission for nine months before the Pivecs hired him.

Merriweather and the other workers are somewhat shy about elaborating on how they came to be homeless or jobless. Some say they had drinking problems or a poor work ethic.

"The only history we care about is the one you start the day you come to work here," Merriweather says. "There are men here with some skills. You can't tell me these people don't want to work."

Merriweather -- a Vietnam War veteran with military and civilian experience in warehouse management -- and his colleagues hope to be working a lot harder soon.

The Pivecs' company recently submitted bids for contracts to collect recyclables from Baltimore neighborhoods, but the bids were rejected because they did not meet the city's minority-contracting requirements.

The Pivecs insist that the deficiencies can be rectified when they resubmit bids within several months. They say it was a technical matter of not specifying different minority contractors for each collection zone on which they bid. Each zone includes about 12,000 homes.

If the company eventually is awarded city collection contracts, the Pivecs say, 20 or 30 more people could be hired.

Similar bids from Browning-Ferris Industries, a nationwide waste-handling company, were rejected earlier this month by the city Board of Estimates for the same reason, city officials say.

The rejections have caused the city a four-month delay in expanding its curbside recycling program, says Stephen E. Chidsey, the city's recycling coordinator.

The city began its volunteer curbside recycling program in November at about 20,000 homes. The program is part of an effort to meet a state mandate for jurisdictions to recycle as much as 20 percent of their trash by 1994.

Chidsey and recycling advocates in the region say they are impressed by the Pivecs' idea of "recycling people" as well as used containers and old newspapers, as Barbara Pivec calls it.

"This would be a model for the rest of the nation," says Daniel L. Jerrems, chairman of the Baltimore Recycling Coalition, an advocacy group.

The Pivecs also plan to bid on contracts with Baltimore County to sort recyclables for reuse.

In addition to hiring Merriweather and others like him, the Pivecs are offering their workers a chance for a real stake in the action. They helped Merriweather and three other former mission residents form their own company, called Rescue Recycling Inc.

Eventually, as business increases, Rescue Recycling would seek its own contracts for collecting or processing recyclables, Mike Pivec says. The Pivecs say they are nurturing the offshoot company, hoping it becomes an independent operation, perhaps in a separate location.

Sammy Davis, 60, is another of the principals in Rescue Recycling. He says he was laid off from a cook's job at a New Jersey resort then spent a brief time at the mission.

"It means a great deal," he says of the opportunity presented at the Pivecs' company. "If I didn't think it would work, I wouldn't be here."

"I messed up a couple of jobs," acknowledges Ron Haas, 29, another worker who still lives at the mission. "I drank too much and wasn't motivated . . . I got a different attitude now."

He likes the Pivecs' attitude. "They know we're not machines. They have a lot of sensitivity toward people."

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