Until about two-and-a-half years ago, Bobby Dainko was living in his car, addicted to meth.
Today, he’s clean and works full time at Spring Back Colorado Mattress Recycling, a nonprofit in Commerce City that recycles used mattresses that would otherwise end up in landfills. The nonprofit deliberately employs folks like Dainko — graduates of a nearby addiction treatment program.
“Yeah, I was living in my car right down the street here,” said Dainko, pointing out the window from an air-conditioned office where he answers calls and schedules mattress pickups. “I just got sick and tired of what it takes to live homeless. I used to think, ‘Oh, you’re homeless. You don’t have to do anything.’ But no, it’s a daily battle. Hour by hour even. Where am I going? What am I doing? I did that for almost a year and got so sick of it. I called Wellness Court and they welcomed me back at 2 in the morning.”
Dainko had previously worked at Spring Back after graduating from the nearby Stout Street Foundation substance abuse recovery program in 2017. But he relapsed a year later, after his mother passed away. He just wasn’t done with drugs, he says now. But he believes he’s finally kicked his addiction for good. And Spring Back gave him his job back.
“The owner (Christopher Conway), he said, ‘Bobby, you’ve never lied to me, you’ve never stolen from me. Those are the two things I don’t tolerate. Yes, I’ll give you another chance.’ And he did,” said Dainko, who now has benefits like health insurance. “And because of that, I got a second chance here.”
Unofficial and official workforce programs have been a source of labor for Colorado employers long before the pandemic and the ensuing labor shortage struck. But there’s another breed of workforce programs that help the planet, help consumers get rid of old stuff and help people who have difficulty finding work get a job. From diverting old computers and unwanted couches from landfills to refurbishing or upcycling materials for another life, the social enterprises often hover below the public radar. But some have caught the attention of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, which awarded grants to many programs aimed at diverting waste from the landfills.
“We applaud companies working on recycling solutions, particularly when they accomplish that by developing socially responsible business models that help some of Colorado’s disadvantaged workers learn new skills,” Kendra Appelman-Eastvedt, the recycling grants program manager, wrote in an email.
Here’s a few of them, but please share others in your local community and we’ll compile a list for a future story.
MORE PLACES TO RECYCLE IN THIS UPDATE: Where to get rid of hard-to-toss items in Colorado — and also benefit society
Spring Back’s triple bottom line
Spring Back gets a shoutout from the city of Denver’s bulky-item disposal page. The company also partners with five landfills around the state by providing a trailer to collect mattresses for recycling at $30 each. Otherwise landfill customers often pay more to dispose of a mattress — it costs $74 at the Waste Management-operated Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site in Aurora. And yes, the mattress goes into the landfill, said a Waste Management employee who answered a pricing call. She suggested Spring Back for recycling mattresses at a lower price.
Spring Back works with mattress stores to collect unwanted mattresses, and it has partnerships with a handful of landfills, including in Mesa and Larimer Counties, and several cities, including Pueblo, Loveland and Denver. In the Denver area, there’s mattress pick up. On an average week, Spring Back workers tear down between 1,500 to 2,000 unwanted mattresses; strip them for steel, foam, wood and other recyclable parts; and send very little to the landfill.
“The environmental impact is huge. Long-term sustainability is really important. Working with cities and municipalities is great. But this whole thing was started out of the desire to help folks and really help them get their life turned around,” said Peter Conway, vice president of business development and the founder’s son. “That’s the rewarding part, for me at least.”
Eric Gallegos, who completed the Stout Street program and graduates in February, plans to stay at Spring Back “for the long haul.”
Gallegos, who had the choice of prison or Stout Street, said that Stout Street showed him the path out of a life of drugs. Spring Back helps him stay on it.
“I’m comfortable here. I like to have a good, productive work day that challenges me. And this is labor intensive,” said Gallegos, who is from Trinidad. “When you make it through the day, you feel accomplished.”
Getting a job has long been part of Stout Street’s program, said Bradley Lucero, its executive director. The organization has worked with Spring Back for about a decade and also works with organizations like Food Bank of The Rockies and construction companies. It’s always looking for new partners willing to employ those at Stout Street, most who are there because their only other option was prison.
“They’re not used to getting up and going to work. They’re not used to what minimum wage looks like, or living on $20 an hour because selling drugs, obviously they could make thousands of dollars in an afternoon,” Lucero said. “Having an idea of what a future looks like sober is huge.”
And for those who are tired of their old way of life and ready for more stability, the partnership with employers helps graduates get a second chance to reboot their work life.
“Some of them will take advantage of it, some of them will squander it,” Lucero said. “But for the most part, it’s folks that understand they have a criminal history and the longer they can keep a solid resume or build a solid resume, they understand that’ll help their odds down the road to apply and hopefully retain other positions.”
Seeking developmentally disabled workers
Just west of downtown Denver, Blue Star Recyclers charges a fee to take an old PC, monitor or other household electronics off your hands. The fees help pay a team that dismantles computers and household electronics. Parts are recycled for profit or upcycled into working computers for sale. The tasks are repetitive but employees are eager to get to work. The majority have been diagnosed with some sort of developmental disability, like autism.
“It’s like they’re waiting by the clock a minute before (the work day starts) to make sure they clock in right on time,” said Sam Morris, Blue Star’s CEO. His dad, Bill, started the company in 2009 in Colorado Springs. “We’ve had folks who’ve been with us in Colorado Springs for 13 to 15 years and they are still exceeding their goals every week. And they’re doing the exact same thing every day.”
The company has diverted 34 million pounds of electronics from landfills and continues to do so. The pandemic strained its growth and caused Blue Star to close newer operations in Chicago and Boulder. But something it did months before the pandemic changed its trajectory. After sharing their workforce results with a team of electronics recyclers in 2019, Blue Star doubled down on its original mission: finding job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. Blue Star’s employees are rarely absent, very focused on their daily tasks and have a good attitude, according to a case study on the company’s workforce.
“It was just the real simple stuff: zero absenteeism and lost-time accidents, 98% on-task engagement, all the measurables that everyone is so focused on, it became pretty clear that they were going ‘Omigosh, how do we get in on this?’” Morris said. “What we’ve found over the years is that, especially for folks on the autistic spectrum, they are just unbelievably good at that systematic step-by-step task. Whether it’s putting something together or taking it apart, if it’s the same everyday and they know what to expect, that’s their comfort zone.”
Blue Star began a national training program for the organization behind the e-Stewards certification, an e-waste recycling standard that bans exporting toxic e-waste to developing nations.
Before it launched the Advanced Plus program, Blue Star had employed roughly 60 individuals with a diagnosed developmental disability. After setting up the training program in 2019, “we’re almost at 200,” Morris said. “It became clear pretty quickly that this was the best approach.”
Hiring unhoused people to clean up parks
When city budgets got slashed during the pandemic, Denver’s Department of Parks and Recreation felt the pain and was unable to hire the usual crew of seasonal workers. That’s when the nonprofit Civic Center Conservancy, which exists to support Civic Center park, began strategizing.
The Conservancy teamed up with Bayaud Enterprises to hire unhoused residents to pick up trash and assist city workers with landscaping in a program called Civic Center Works, which launched in April 2022.
“The narrative around Civic Center in some way, shape or form was that the homeless were a drain on Civic Center and it was something that was bringing it down. But we knew the unhoused community were some of the park’s biggest advocates. And we had seen from before (the pandemic) that the people finding community in our park, Civic Center park, were the ones who were walking around picking up trash and taking care of it,” said Eric Lazzari, the Conservancy’s executive director.
Last year, 24 people were hired to work six hours a day, three days a week for the season. Ten moved on to permanent jobs with the parks department or used the program as a stepping stone in their career path. This season, there’s about five people on the job daily with about a dozen in the program, he said.
“These are folks making the steps to transition out of homelessness and were looking for jobs,” Lazzari said. “What started out as a parks problem solved the parks problem but also impacted and changed the lives of others.”
Couch flippers for the greater good
What started as a side project for Nick Reichert and friend Lance Harding to make a few extra bucks in 2016 is now a couch refurbishing and upcycling business helping those in need.
“One of our first couches actually went to someone who was just getting off the streets,” said Reichert, who was a fly fishing guide in the Vail Valley when he noticed free couches on Craigslist that were often in decent condition. “I’ve always had a heart, especially for the homeless. He was just so excited to get this really nice couch that had been fixed up and cleaned up (and) delivered to his house.”
The Good Couch in Lakewood today receives about 50 couches a week (it also offers pickup). After cleaning and fixing them, the couches are sold online. That helps sustain the company, which is profitable. It donates some of the proceeds to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless but also provides couches to folks who are getting a home after living on the streets. Harding is a founder but no longer part of the business.
But some couches are in such bad shape or, well, just outdated, ugly and unsellable. Those ones are stripped for parts and recycled to avoid the landfill or upcycled into something new.
“Being a fly fishing guide, I have a heart for sustainability. I want to see as little waste go into the landfill as possible,” he said. “In couches, there’s just all this wood and metal, upholstery foam. None of that’s good in a landfill.”
Wood and metal has been used for shelving and the company’s storage shed. Extra frames, hardware and legs are used to fix up other couches. Reichert also estimates that The Good Couch has saved 1,000 pounds of leather from landfills.
They recently began working with American Made Apparel Manufacturing in Aurora to do something with those leather scraps. Now it has a line of handbags, wallets and card holders — all made in Denver with leather from unwanted couches.
“I’d say that at least 95% of what we take is at least partially or fully disassembled and reused,” he said. “The most fulfilling part is definitely being able to get furniture to the people who (the Coalition) is able to place in semi-permanent housing. And there’s a lot of other ministries and organizations now, too, that know about us and are able to recommend us so we do get to give away a fair amount of couches every month to folks in need.”
Is there an organization or business in your community that provides a similar service? Reporter Tamara Chuang is compiling a list. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to share other services around Colorado.
MORE PLACES TO RECYCLE IN THIS UPDATE: Where to get rid of hard-to-toss items in Colorado — and also benefit society