Kai Abelkis was working on a tough problem.
As sustainability coordinator of Boulder Community Health, he is working to reach zero waste in the Boulder hospitals. The job is complex, finding solutions to the waste problems that hoteliers and food service providers face. And then there's the medical stuff, much of which is not the hazardous material most people imagine but, rather, packaging for instruments and all the various items used in medical care.
The problem was particularly acute in operating rooms, where equipment is wrapped in a thick, perforated plastic called blue wrap and sent through the autoclave to be sterilized. Abelkis could not find a recycler willing to take the blue wrap, which often had tape on it and was frequently mixed with other packaging.
"After a while it adds up," Abelkis says. "It generates a lot of waste."
Geoff Davis also was working on a problem.
As Day Program team leader at North Metro Community Services in Westminster, his job is working with cognitively disabled adults in what's known as pre-vocational services. That means getting people ready for "real world" jobs by working on skills such as promptness and working hard at a job. North Metro already does cardboard recycling, runs a shredding business and also supplies jobs that involve disassembling computers and taking out the usable parts to be recycled.
Davis approached Abelkis, hoping he had computers for Davis' team to recycle. Abelkis happily agreed to let Davis handle BCH's old computers.
A few months later, after talking to a peer in a Portland hospital who had found a way to recycle the blue wrap, Abelkis contacted Davis to see if he could help with BCH's blue wrap problem.
The hospital had operating room personnel eager to do some preliminary sorting by placing certain items in certain carts. But what Abelkis needed was someone to sort the materials more specifically and find an end user willing to take the blue wrap material once it was separated.
Davis did some research and found a company, Alpine Waste, in Denver, willing to take the blue wrap waste if it was bundled in large quantities. The next step was putting together work crews to sort through operating room packaging to separate out the blue wrap and take tape off it.
Fast-forward to today.
Twice a week, two North Metro "blue crews" pick up operating room waste at BCH, Longmont United, Exempla and Children's hospitals and sort through it in the facilities at North Metro. The two crews employ 10 people, who work Monday through Thursday and are paid minimum wage for their sorting work.
The job provides valuable experience, teaching them to interact with others, since they pick up the materials from the hospitals, in addition to doing the actual sorting.
Davis says blue crew members have a lot of pride in their work.
"They know that non-disabled people on the outside are doing the same tasks," he says, adding that the workers also get the enviromental piece, that they are helping to keep the blue wrap out of landfills.
Every now and then, a piece of surgical equipment shows up in the blue wrap. That is donated to a nonprofit in Centennial that sends medical equipment to developing countries. The workers call the bin where the equipment is placed the Africa basket.
Blue Crew member Shawn Davidson, 34, of Thornton, says she enjoys meeting new people when crew members pick up the blue wrap.
"I like all of them," she says.
She adds: "I like helping people."
Davidson says it takes effort to keep focused on putting the wrap in the right containers.
"It's a lot of work. I'm tired at the end of the day," she says.
Davis, who is Davidson's supervisor, says that while he must be aware of the workers' disabilities to help them do their job, that's not the prism through which he views them.
"We are able to focus on their abilities. (We ask ourselves) 'What can they do?' " he says, adding that they are working real jobs. "I get on them if they socialize too much."
Davidson doesn't seem to think Davis is too tough on them, though.
"I like him," she says with a big smile.
Abelkis says he hopes the program will be duplicated elsewhere.
"Our true goal is that we want to create a model that can be duplicated throughout Colorado and possibly throughout the country," he says. "Two community organizations collaborating to do something remarkable."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Cindy Sutter at 303-473-1335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.