Indy’s RecycleForce Helps Ex-Offenders Start Again

Gregg Keesling may have dropped out of Earlham College at 19 years of age, but he soon gained a worldly education by landing in Jamaica. He then spent over two decades in the midst of civil unrest as the Caribbean nation fought for its identity in a changing world. With his adopted country at a tipping point in 1980, he saw the election of Ronald Reagan back home help to bring capitalism to the island.

He notes that he himself converted from a "hippie" to a capitalist, and began working on developing a hotel — and then public projects like helping eradicate polio from the country and working with the European Union to install a sewer system in the area, which ultimately helped gentrify the area around the hotel. His participation in Rotarian work eventually brought him back to Indianapolis, where he founded RecycleForce in 2003.

Not only does RecycleForce work to help the environment by providing an array of waste disposal services, but the 501(c)(3)'s staff is mostly made up of men and women who have spent time in Indiana's corrections system. Keesling is focused on helping them re-enter society by finding gainful employment.

"These (ex-offenders) are some of the best people on earth," he contends. "They’ve been tagged as if they’re not. Someone once said 'the arc of history bends toward justice' — and it’s hard to be openly racist anymore, like when I grew up in the 1970s … but you can certainly use the same sentiments and feelings and call the person an 'ex-offender.' And you can get away with it, and say 'I don’t want those criminals in my neighborhood. They should all be locked up.' But these are human beings with inherent worth; they’re fathers, brothers, uncles and they deserve a role in our world."

Keesling asserts that the liability employers are currently burdened with is the most significant barrier to employment for former prisoners.

"If a guy is doing a great job and a company wants to hire him directly (after using a staffing company), the liability would keep them from doing it … if companies want to reduce their liability insurance, they screen out ex-offenders."

He points to a study recently conducted by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) indicating 70% of employers in Marion County have some type of barrier against hiring an ex-offender.

"Many will hire them, but you have to be out of prison for five or seven years," Keesling qualifies. "So the question is: What do you do for those years? How do you eat? You can’t get food stamps. You can’t get public housing. You can’t get any help and seven out of 10 employers won’t hire you. There are 135,000 to 150,000 felons and high misdemeanors in Marion County, according to the UC Berkeley Center for Employment Law."

He believes a solution could start at the Statehouse.

"If there’s one thing the Legislature could do, it would be smart tort reform around what is a negligent hire," Keesling offers. "If a guy committed a robbery, he can still drive a truck. Now I wouldn’t want to put a (recovering) drunk in a truck, or a sex offender in daycare, but there has to be some logical ways to get them in the workforce."

Keesling harkens back to his memories of Jamaica about the dangers and violence that ensue when a large percentage of the population is not employable — and the desperation that leads people to commit crimes in order to eat.

Yet success stories are evident at RecycleForce, which currently employs 128 workers, with 22 others in management.

"I'm thankful for my job at RecycleForce," explains Robby Wiker, a truck driver for the company. "Without the help or training they gave me, I don't know where I'd be or what I'd be doing. They provided great training to me and it was without cost to me. I'm also a forklift operator and am trained in many warehouse operations — and I'm a permanent employee there."

The company is also now the sixth largest recycler in the state.

"It proves they can work. That’s the biggest myth – that these guys don’t want to work," Keesling reinforces. "I think it’s the most important issue of our time — that nobody seems to care about."

Company, Universities Make Eco-Impact in Evansville

Alcoa and the universities of Evansville and Southern Indiana took part in a nationwide recycling contest, with great results for those institutions and the community:

The University of Evansville and the University of Southern Indiana recycled more than 67,000 pounds of material during the 8-week long RecycleMania contest, which was sponsored nationally by the Alcoa Foundation.

In total, 630 colleges and universities competed in the nationwide contest, which is meant to bolster on-campus recycling rates. This year, 91 million pounds of recyclables and organic materials were recovered during the challenge, which prevented the release of nearly 270 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions from 53 million passenger cars.

Locally, Alcoa Warrick Operations encouraged the two universities in this challenge through the donation of recycling bins and a $1,500 prize to the school that performed the best on a per capita basis.

The University of Evansville won the local contest, collecting 15.45 pounds of waste for every student, compared to USI’s 5.64 pounds per student. The University of Evansville also finished first in the state of Indiana among the 10 Hoosier schools, and it also placed in the top tier of schools nationwide on a per capita basis, finishing 119th out of 630 schools.

“By building the first two LEED-certified buildings in Vanderburgh County, the Schroeder Family School of Business Administration Building and the Ridgway University Center, the University of Evansville has proven itself to be a community leader on issues of sustainability,” said UE President Thomas A. Kazee. “We’re proud to continue that role with our outstanding performance in RecycleMania.”

The University of Evansville also finished 29th as the Grand Champion – an achievement based on both source reduction and recycling.

The University of Southern Indiana won in one state-wide category to see which school could divert the largest amount of food service organics per person.

 Todd Wilson, an assistant Vice President at USI , said the university increased its recycling during the RecycleMania program. “And we plan to keep up that trend year-round.”

“We’d like to offer our congratulations to UE on their win in the competition,” Wilson said. “But it’s a win-win-win for USI, UE, and the community, as less material went into the waste stream as a result.”

Paula Davis, President of the Alcoa Foundation, said the program was a great success nationally, encouraging tomorrow’s leaders to focus even more on sustainability and waste reduction.

Alcoa Behind Major Recycling Effort

Great story here out of the Evansville area. As part of Alcoa Foundation’s global plan to assist the communities in which it resides, it’s joining Keep America Beautiful (in participation with the Universities of Evansville and Southern Indiana) enhance the environment through recycling. Read the details

The Alcoa Foundation has joined forces with Keep America Beautiful to encourage greater recycling among tomorrow’s leaders by sponsoring RecycleMania, an intense, 10-week competition between colleges and universities.

In addition to the Alcoa Foundation’s support of the nationwide program, which includes more than 600 schools, Warrick Operations is sponsoring a local competition between the University of Evansville and the University of Southern Indiana. The local university performing the best in Recycle Mania will receive a $1,500 donation from Alcoa Warrick Operations to further assist the school’s on-campus recycling programs.

“By supporting KAB’s RecycleMania, we want to educate students, professors and the entire campus community about the importance of recycling and inspire people to take that extra step in the dorm, at the library and after class,” said Paula Davis, Alcoa Foundation President.

South Bend the Site for Climate Change Forum

Congress returns to work on September 8. On that same day, Hoosiers can learn more about climate change and energy legislation being debated in Washington — and how it might impact Hoosier businesses.

The Northwest Indiana Forum and Nucor are sponsoring the Climate Change Forum at the South Bend Marriott. The 90-minute event (11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. with a complimentary lunch included) will tackle, in the organizers’ words: "the global scope of the climate change issue, the impact of greenhouse gases on our local communities, clean energy technology and recycling initiatives."

The goal: a focus on policies that create a sustainable balance between protecting our environment and developing our state’s business sector.

An RSVP is required. Call (866) 731-1929.

Valpo, Recycling … and Ringo?

As a member of my beloved Beatles, Ringo Starr holds a special place in my heart. Granted, he’s not my favorite member (that distinction goes to Mr. McCartney), but his quirkiness is decidedly endearing.

As Ringo celebrated his birthday earlier this month and his hit, “It Don’t Come Easy” serenaded me home from work, I reflected on how that statement applies to my cooking skills (it wasn’t my proudest moment when Tater Tots caught fire in the oven.)  Fortunately, however, some things do come easy in life – like making an impact in the recycling world.

Take Northwest Indiana, for example. People are working hard to reduce waste and advance sustainable construction, but many of their initiatives include things that are easy to do (turning off lights before leaving the office, participating in curbside recycling). The city of Valparaiso diverts 49% of residential trash away from landfills through recycling. (Heck, if you’re going to take out the trash anyway, why not toss a few recyclables into a bin?)

Other green initiatives taking place in the region include redevelopment of the Lake Michigan lakefront and a partnership between the city of Valparaiso and a beer wholesaler to enhance environmental stewardship.

Learn more about these exciting developments in the current issue of BizVoice® magazine.

Chamber Supports Bipartisan Electronic Waste Bill

HB 1589, authored by Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan (D – Indianapolis) and Sen. Beverly Gard (R – Greenfield), requires manufacturers of household televisions and computer monitors that contain cathode ray tubes or some flat panel screens to recycle certain electronic devices. The bill also requires that manufacturers of video display devices and collectors and recyclers of certain electronic devices register with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

According to Indiana Chamber VP of energy and environmental affairs Vince Griffin, electronic waste (E-waste) represents the fastest growing waste stream in our society. If handled improperly, it may present an environmental and public health threat.

"The large majority of landfills are built to the strictest standards and are appropriate final disposal sites for E-waste," Griffin explains. "However, to reuse and recycle these products is preferred. The Indiana Chamber supports a program that promotes responsible reuse/recycling of E-waste and the fee to pay for the handling, recycling and disposal of E-waste – though it should not be an unfair burden on Indiana business or consumers."

The Chamber has played a key role in working with all parties to realize a compromise bill. The bill passed out of Senate Energy and Environmental Committee Monday and is eligible to be heard by the legislature.

Chamber’s Workplace Wellness Project to Benefit Environment

I know, I know. You’re sick of hearing about companies "going green." But here at the Chamber, we’ve recently launched a program that makes small, albeit noteworthy strides in this area.

I’m chairing an initiative by our Wellness Committee called the Workplace Wellness Project. The goal of the project is to make the office more environmentally-friendly and help conserve our resources. Here are a few of the things we’re doing:

* Remove Styrofoam cups from the break room and supply paper cups, although we encourage staff to use their own mugs

* Recycle cans in the break room, as well as collect poptabs for the Ronald McDonald House

* Recycle office paper through a local trash company (which we’ve been doing for years). The Chamber also has a publications department, so we’ve recently started recycling old pubs through Indianapolis Recycled Fiber. They will actually come pick them up.

* Educate staff with an environmental speaker at a staff meeting

* Kick off the project with a Pizza Party on Earth Day, which is April 22. Those who wish to attend must sign the Green Commandments, which are 10 suggested behaviors encouraging eco-friendly behavior such as shutting off lights when not in use, recycling when possible, not printing materials when e-documents suffice, bringing lunch in reusable containers, using pens until they are out of ink, etc.

We even have a cartoonish mascot to rally behind named Stan Arbor, the Workplace Wellness Wallaby (oh, the joys of Microsoft Publisher).

These are just some ideas to consider if you’d like to make your office more eco-friendly, help your bottom line and boost morale through a green project.