Since 2006, Indianapolis-based RecycleForce has paid over $10 million in wages and employed 650 ex-felons to recycle over 20 million pounds of electronic waste. The non-profit social enterprise has a dual mission: to help people coming out of prison successfully transition back into civil society, and to keep as much electronic waste as possible out of Indiana’s landfills. RecycleForce deconstructs electronic waste and other recyclables provided by residents and corporate partners, separates the reusable materials, and disposes of the waste safely and cleanly. The scrap metals and other recyclables collected are sold to help pay for job training programs and employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated men and women.
The day he laid off 150 men was Gregg Keesling’s last straw — and the genesis of RecycleForce. For several years Keesling had been running a staffing agency that employed ex-felons. By having the staffing agency be liable for the employees, he was able to get his clients a foot in the door, but finding them steady employment was a struggle. When he lost a big contract because the manufacturer decided to outsource to China, and then had to make those painful layoffs, Keesling decided he’d had enough: “I no longer wanted to be at the mercy of someone who just wanted to make money and throw these people away.”
With his business partner, Tom Gray, Keesling set out to found an operation that would offer steady employment for the ex-felons he was committed to helping re-enter society. He was in the midst of failing negotiations on a prospective opportunity when he stumbled upon a literal gold mine.
“The owner of the building we were meeting in took us down to his basement and asked us if we could do something with all of his junk,” Keesling recalls. This “junk,” which filled a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, floor to ceiling, was the remains of a computer refurbishing business. “It turns out there was more gold in a ton of that junk than in 55 tons of ore from the ground.”
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When RecycleForce opened in 2006, employing a marginalized workforce by recycling what most viewed as trash was unexplored territory. Keesling and Gray, building on the foundation of their newfound goldmine, created a new system of working with ex-offenders that would support them in their re-entry and prepare them to succeed in the workforce.
Ex-offenders face a myriad of challenges upon release. They often have no home to return to, no job prospects and often no job skills. When they do find a job, they have to fit work hours around court requirements such as drug testing or counseling, and most employers aren’t flexible enough to accommodate that.
“They’re faced with tough decisions: go to work or go back to prison,” says Keesling. “It’s a catch-22.”
Minor parole violations, like missing a court appearance or not paying child support, are the primary reason many people go back to jail. RecycleForce addresses this issue with a comprehensive program allowing ex-felons to earn a living while complying with strict supervision. Participants receive six months of transitional employment with on-the-job training, plus additional services focused on job skills, character development and personal counseling.
RecycleForce sources its “trash” through contracts with city and state agencies, public drop-off locations for toxic waste, collection events with local business and churches, and reverse logistics — products that are returned or never make it off of retailers’ shelves.
In the fall of 2010, RSF Social Finance provided crucial financing for RecycleForce to purchase an industrial shredder, affectionately known as “the Beast.” That investment has improved productivity, dramatically increased the amount of material the company is able to recycle (6.3 million pounds in 2012 versus 3 million pounds in 2010), and opened up new markets. But it almost didn’t happen.
“We went to bank after bank after bank,” Keesling says. “RSF offered us a loan when no one else was interested or able to understand our model.”
The Beast is a massive piece of equipment, measuring around 60 feet high by 120 feet long. It allows RecycleForce to disassemble electronics that can’t be broken down by hand. Once the large electronics are shredded, a heavy-duty magnet removes the metals and staff “pickers” sort through the remains, separating the materials they then sell for recycling: copper, aluminum, plastic, steel and precious metals such as gold.
“When you toss out electronics you might as well be throwing away money,” notes Keesling. Electronic waste contains many valuable materials, and countries that don’t have much of them or can’t mine them are eager to purchase the millions of pounds of materials Americans get rid of every year. RecycleForce generates over $50,000 per month in sales of gold and other precious metals.
The Beast has equipped RecycleForce to divert millions of tons of electronic waste from the landfill. The organization quickly surpassed its goal of 600,000 pounds of processed materials per month; its new goal is one million pounds per month. That’s an immense positive environmental impact, and RecycleForce is achieving remarkable social benefits as well. The recidivism rate in Marion County, where RecycleForce is based, is 52 percent in the first year following prison release. RecycleForce’s goal is to cut that to 25 percent for the ex-offenders who go through its program, and it’s on track to do much better than that.
For the current cohort of 250 ex-offenders, the recidivism rate when results are tabulated later next year is expected to be well under 20 percent. “We embrace a labor force on which the rest of the country has turned their backs,” Keesling says. “Without effective support, we can’t expect folks with limited job skills to feed their families and overcome a host of mandates that challenge their ability to improve themselves.”