Unique Cleveland Plastics Recycling Program Creates Opportunities for Disabled Workers

Unique Cleveland Plastics Recycling Program Creates Opportunities for Disabled Workers

Northeast Ohio’s Buckeye Industries is employing 42 developmentally disabled workers to debag, sort, separate and bale tons of pre-surgical medical waste in recycling program that is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Tucked in a part industrial-part residential neighborhood of Cleveland sits Buckeye Industries-West, one of four area business enterprises of New Avenues to Independence located in this Midwest city.

Inside the 20,000-sq.-ft. facility, significantly disabled adults do the labor intensive, tedious material handling work necessary to recycle uncontaminated plastics from operating rooms throughout the region’s two largest hospital systems—the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. Think gowns, empty saline bottles, cardboard boxes, bowls, trays and clear and mixed films.

“We are the only ones doing pre-surgical medical waste recycling. Nationally no one is currently doing what we are doing,” says Thomas Lewins, executive director of Buckeye Industries, who added that close to one-third of Buckeye’s 150 employees are devoted to the pre-surgical plastics recycling effort. The not-for-profit organization also recycles other hard-to-wrangle products such as polystyrene, along with cardboard and non-clinical plastics. In all, it recycled 1.2 million pounds of material last year.

“Our approach to our business enterprises is intended to employ people with disabilities, to be business friendly in our local community and to be friendly to the earth—those are the three underpinnings of everything that we do,” he says.

In 2014, Buckeye Industries recycled 83.5 tons from the Cleveland Clinic and 54.5 tons from University Hospitals and doubled its workforce, Lewins says.

“For years, our surgical teams believed there was a better way to dispose of the tremendous volumes of sterile plastics that they generated before an OR case,” says Julie Marth, program manager of Office for a Healthy Environment at the Cleveland Clinic, which has 86 operating rooms on its main campus that collect about three tons of clinical plastics each month, diverting it from the landfill. “Buckeye Industries saw our voluminous waste problem as a big opportunity. Together, we created a solution that ensures our plastics are recycled responsibly and affordably, while ensuring worker safety and creating local jobs.”

At the Cleveland Clinic, unused plastics are collected before the patient enters the room, and tied off in purple bags to be recycled. At University Hospitals, recyclable plastics are put in gray and blue bags. Those bags come to Buckeye’s west side facility where they have to be opened and the contents sorted and dealt with by workers.

“We are very good at creating jobs around a specific person’s ability and skill sets,” Lewins says. “A person who may only have use of one hand may have partial use of another and they may be able to hold part of a gown and with scissors cut off the end of the arm piece which is all cloth. Others use the buddy system to complete tasks that might include removing paper labels or separating plastic films.

“We have happy employees who are learning new skills and being successful—all of us want to be successful,” says Lewins, adding that almost half of Buckeye’s employees with disabilities get paid the minimum wage or higher. The program is also a training ground to move individuals with disabilities to more competitive employment.

Once completely sorted and color coded into Gaylord boxes, the clinical plastics are baled and then sold to Rumpke Waste and Recycling Services. Rumpke consolidates and markets the plastics to end-users and processors who further re-grind and pelletize these materials for the manufacture of new products. For example, blue sterilization wrap is made into blue recycling containers, and clear plastic is transformed into blended cotton and polyester clothing. 

“It’s a magical relationship between three or four partners where everybody has to win in order for it to work,” Lewins says. “It is replicable, but it takes a willing hospital system and their bureaucracy to buy into green practices and sustainability, as well as training for the staff. Then you have to engage a waste management company that is willing to take the approach to sustainability. And it requires a company—in most practical purposes a not for profit—that has the labor force that can provide the sorting activity.”

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