Crouched over rows of worktables with screwdrivers at the ready, a group of predominantly young men and women sits meticulously poking through metal computer chassis, disassembling the fans, motherboards and the tiniest of internal components for reuse.

Hailing almost entirely from Israel’s special-needs population, the workers are employees of the Ecommunity Group’s electronic waste recycling facility in Karmiel, where they are transforming technological trash into usable parts and wholes.

The “Ecology for the Sheltered Community” program through which the employees are working is the brainchild of Ecommunity CEO and founder Danny Kogen, who has a toddler with special needs.

His combined passion of integrating special-needs young adults into the workforce as well as the need “to transform electronic waste from an ecological hazard to a natural asset” drove him to launch the project, Kogen told The Jerusalem Post at the factory on Tuesday.

The mechanical precision involved in taking apart a circuit and an affinity for electronics can be “very therapeutic,” added Ira Caplan, Ecommunity’s liason to the United States.

“Through the needs of his son, [Kogen] came to understand a gift that many special- needs kids have,” Caplan said. “These people are part of us and they bring us a lot of strength.”

While the effort first began as a smaller project in 2007, the company eventually opened shop in 2009 on Kibbutz Yasur, about 15 km. west of Karmiel. The new facility, in Karmiel’s Misgav industrial zone, opened its doors technically about a month ago but was officially inaugurated on Tuesday in a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz.

In the spacious factory workroom, surrounded by stacks of all-in-one printers and LCD monitors, Jewish and Arab employees worked side by side and disassembled spare parts for reuse. Still others thrived as computer technicians, assembling new computers and reconfiguring broken ones for secondhand resale.

Dror, a 28-year-old from Kiryat Haim, showed the Post his set of three screwdrivers and pliers that he uses to take apart various machines, separating the contents into two yellow bins.

While frustrated on Tuesday morning over difficulties with a handheld DVD player, the ever-smiling Dror said he is very happy to be working for the company for the past three years. In an adjacent room, 26-year-old Rafat, who has been a technician there for six months, demonstrated how he is replacing the memory in a laptop on his table.

Ecommunity has 60 specialneeds workers and 14 staff members on site in Karmiel, as well as 115 individuals training in various settings around the country, Caplan said.

The recyclable computers, which make up the brunt of the electronic machinery there, come from more than 2,000 companies, organizations and local councils. Some of the prominent firms shipping in computers include Rafael, IBM, Microsoft, Coca Cola, Bank Hapoalim and Pelephone.

The special-needs employees come from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances, including many on the autistic spectrum, as well as others with Down’s syndrome, ADD/ADHD and other emotional and physical challenges.

“Our business is recycling electric waste and our mission is employing the special needs population,” Caplan said.

Electronic waste is a burden on the environment, because in addition to accumulating in unsightly piles, the toxic chemicals found in this type of garbage can dangerously seep into the groundwater, Caplan stressed. But that same toxic menace, if handled properly, can be “transformed into a resource,” he said.

By delving into productive work at the factory, the employees can become more independent and enjoy environments in which they can thrive, Caplan added.

The inauguration of the new Ecommunity facility resonates particularly well with recently approved government policy on electronic waste. Last May, the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee approved in its second and third readings an Electronic Waste Law, which previously received first reading approval in the Knesset plenum and support from the cabinet.

Initiated by Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) and promoted by the Environmental Protection Ministry and MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), the law aims to rid the country of the approximately 80,000 tons of electronic waste that emerge in landfills here each year.

The law stipulates that by 2021, all manufacturers and importers of electronics must recycle the equivalent of 50 percent of the total weight of their annual electronics sales.

Those that sell batteries must begin recycling between 30- 35% of their products, depending on the type of batteries sold, by the year 2019.

All businesses that sell electronics, meanwhile, will be required to accept old devices without additional payment when a customer purchases a new and similar item.

According to the law, all electronic-waste recycling factories must include specialneeds individuals as part of their workforce in order to receive accreditation.

As far as the Environmental Protection Ministry is aware, there are thus far five electronic- waste recycling facilities in the country.

Since beginning his term as environmental protection minister, Peretz has essentially adopted the slogan “it is impossible to separate between environmental and social justice” – a phrase he said particularly fits the work going on at the Ecommunity facility.

“I think that at this factory you can see this clearly, that it is impossible to separate between social justice and environmental justice,” Peretz told the Post. “In reality, here we are seeing the entire process – the changing culture of a whole people that understood that waste is something that can be transformed into an asset, something that can be transformed into a very important economic resource, and something that provides social solutions that no other outlet succeeds to give.”

“What we saw here is really a world of people who are discriminated against, who are generally a burden on society, who are frustrated at home, who have nothing to do,” the minister continued. “Suddenly they become productive people, with self-confidence, with smiles on their faces.”

Just as crucial is the specific job that these workers are performing, as 70% of the toxic pollution in Israel originates in untreated electronic waste, Peretz added.

“They really provide a farreaching solution to one of the most problematic environmental issues,” he said.

Peretz committed to advancing the stipulations of the Electronic Waste Law and also vowed to give the support necessary to select companies that will handle electronic garbage collection all over Israel.

“I hope that this process will really move forward in the coming time period,” he said.

As for Ecommunity, the company has big future plans in both Israel and abroad, hoping to spread the company’s concept to the United States within the next five to 10 years, Caplan said.

At home, the firm is laying out plans for a “Global Village” development in the Galilee, which aims to host an industrial park whose companies reuse each other’s waste, as well as a special-needs housing community. Ideally, the village will be powered by solar sources, and rainwater will be reused to water the gardens, Caplan explained.

“Our intention is that it will be run by special-needs individuals,” he said. “Sometimes in this busy 21st century, we forget that people can be the most important resource.”

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