Employment offers people an opportunity to develop a work ethic, responsibility, and a sense of being valued – as well as a paycheck. But most individuals with developmental disabilities usually have few work prospects, even in sheltered environments where a job can also provide the rewards of personal growth, inclusion, and independence.

In northern New York State, a team of 7 biomedical engineering students at Clarkson University and four high school students is working to change that. In collaboration with St. Lawrence NYSARC, a non-profit association that serves individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, the students are using technology to improve the sorting and counting process at local recycling centers. Greater efficiencies in processing should boost the dollar return from the returnable recycling business, but the vision for this project is much broader than that.

The students hope to demonstrate that recycling is a worthwhile, practical option for supported employment for those with physical and mental disabilities. This could lead to additional employment opportunities for people with disabilities throughout New York, and all other states with a beverage redemption program. 

An EPICS in IEEE $8,300 grant is helping to both modernize the intake process and improve count accuracy when recyclables are first returned to vendors.

So far, the student teams have built complete work tables designed for easily assembly. With an eye toward transferring this technology to other supported work environments, the electronic components that handle the counting, as well as producing labels, receipts, and reports, are fashioned as modules that could be assembled at other recycling centers by a team from a nearby IEEE Student Branch. 

The project is providing both the university and high school students with hands-on experience in building their own counter, and experience in wiring, programming, and testing a prototype. Working as a team, they are also gaining social skills and interacting with people with disabilities, applying engineering to better design assistive technologies with the input of those who need it.

Meanwhile, making recyclables processing faster and more accurate benefits the local community: encouraging customers to return with frequency, and resulting in a sustainable, clean environment.