AtWork! is feeling recession bite

January 27, 2009

By Jeff Richards

Berkeley Smith, an eight-year veteran employee of AtWork!, stands next to a mountain of recycled cardboard while throwing pieces onto a conveyor belt to a compactor, which compresses the pieces into 1800-pound bales. By Greg Farrar

Berkeley Smith, an eight-year veteran employee of AtWork!, stands next to a mountain of recycled cardboard while throwing pieces onto a conveyor belt to a compactor, which compresses the pieces into 1800-pound bales. By Greg Farrar

 With market prices for recyclable goods dropping along with everything else, local recycling centers have struggled to maintain the status quo.

Hardest hit has been AtWork!, which saw its revenue drop by about 75 percent in the first quarter of the fiscal year.

Still, both AtWork! and Waste Management are accepting all recyclable goods, though AtWork! is holding onto shredded office paper until the markets improve and it becomes profitable to sell it.

Waste Management, which handles the recycling for all of the city of Issaquah except for South Cove/Greenwood Point, has seen the cost of recycling inch close to the cost of disposing garbage and waste, but that hasn’t and shouldn’t affect its recycling practices in the future, Community Education Director Rita Smith said.

Formed in 1998, AtWork! employs people with disabilities for work in three commercial enterprises: landscaping, packaging and assembly, and recycling. The AtWork! Recycle Center in Issaquah provides free recycling and pays for turned-in aluminum. 

The recycling center employs 16 people with disabilities. Normally, their combined wages are $4,000 to $5,000, but in December, with $903 in sales, their combined wages were $1,100.

“This is a big reduction in pay and very hard on the people with developmental disabilities who work in recycling,” said Christine Brandt, chief executive officer of AtWork!. “They get paid when there’s work to do, but there hasn’t been as much work to do.”

Brandt said the reason for the sharp drop in revenue is not due to a decrease in how much recycled goods they receive, which remained constant or increased during the first quarter of the fiscal year, but solely due to the crash in market prices.

Smith said officials at Waste Management are concerned about the prices for recycling, but they have still managed to find markets for their commodities.

“We experienced a honeymoon the last several years with exceptionally high markets,” she said. “That’s just what the market does, though. It goes up and down.”

What may help offset the loss in revenue for AtWork! is the inclusion of electronic recyclables to its list of accepted items. 

Beginning this month, AtWork! became the local drop-off location for the state’s Covered Electronic Products Program, which pays companies like AtWork! for recycling electronic goods.

Brandt said she expects the company to make $18,000 on electronics this fiscal year, which ends in September.

“This came at the perfect time,” she said. “It’s one of our goals to expand in the future, so we’re really trying to stay strong through this.”

Ultimately, the goal of recycling is to keep the commodities out of the landfills, and that is still happening, Smith said.

“Recycling, in the long term, still makes a lot of economic sense,” she said. “People shouldn’t assume that material has no value when it has little value.”

Reach intern Jeff Richards at 392-6434, ext. 236, or isspress@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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