Mentally Handicapped Work Hard At Recycling

July 17, 1991|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

David reaches across the conveyor belt, snatches up one aluminum soda can, then another and another. In a two-fisted flurry, he sends them hurtling into a chute that leads to the recycling bin below.

He snags a plastic milk jug that has slipped past one of his co-workers and wings it blindly over his shoulder. He scores as the jug ricochets off the rim and drops into a barrel of plastic.

Then, it's back to cans. That's his job. David is one of eight developmentally disabled workers employed at the county's Materials Recovery Facility at the Millersville Landfill, where they sort about 3,500 tons of plastic, glass and metal containers each year for sale onthe recycling markets.

As they make recycling work in Anne Arundel County, they are successfully carving out a niche for themselves and other mentally handicapped people in the growing recycling industry.

The county hired Browning-Ferris Industries to operate the $137,000 packaging plant -- the first of its kind in the state -- shortly after it opened in March 1990. The county recently renewed its contract, paying BFI $53 per ton that it sorts.

BFI turned to VocationalServices Inc., a private, non-profit training program for developmentally disabled people, to staff the operation.

Mentally handicapped people are particularly well-suited for sorting recyclable trash, which the county collects curbside from 25,000 homes, says Allen Dockery, a BFI recycling specialist.

"They don't get bored with the job," Dockery says. "Sorting might seem tedious to you or me, but it's achallenge for them. They stay interested in it. And they always try to do a better and better job."

Robert Kingsbury, executive director of VSI, agrees. Studies, he says, have shown that the developmentally disabled do particularly well with repetitious tasks. As recycling took off in Maryland, his Bowie-based agency targeted the industry as a new employment outlet.

"We saw a while back that recycling was going to be hot, and we wanted to get in on the ground floor," Kingsbury says. "They know their assigned tasks and they just go at it. It doesn't matter if it's extremely hot or extremely cold."

"A person like you or me couldn't stand up there day after day," says John Wenker, assistant plant manager. "I would go nuts. These guys are great."

The plant has not been without its problems with both the equipment and VSI's clients, however.

Though the first of its kind built in Maryland, the sorting plant was already obsolete when it opened, concedes County Recycling Manager Amy Burdick.

"It seems as if every new idea in recycling is obsolete within a month," Burdick says."And with our budget, we haven't been able to adapt."

The plant also has reached its maximum capacity. That means the county will haveto find a new sorting facility when it expands its 3-year-old curbside recycling program from 25,300 homes to 50,000 households in September.

"We only built (the Millersville plant) to handle those 25,000 homes," says Burdick. "Our philosophy is that recycling should be privatized. We want to encourage private industry to build their own facilities."

Although VSI attempted to train its clients on a mock conveyor belt at its air-conditioned workshop in Prince George's County, it couldn't prepare clients for every contingency. The workers needed several months to adjust to the safety equipment -- heavy work gloves, helmets, visors and ear muffs -- as well as to the extreme noise and changes in the weather, says Job Coach Steve Sheckells.

Most of the problems have been worked out, officials say. Dockery says BFI is considering using developmentally disabled workers at a larger sorting plant it is building in Elkridge. While many communities havehad their recycled glass and metal rejected by the market because itwas not properly sorted, Burdick says Anne Arundel has had no such problem.

As landfills become more scarce nationwide, the state has ordered the counties to recycle 10 percent to 20 percent of their trash by 1994.

At the Millersville plant, David says he's proud to help Anne Arundel do its part. "The trash doesn't get no bigger, it gets smaller with us doing this," says David, who previously worked as acustodian in a warehouse.

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