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Jim Smith, founder and owner of SGT’s Recycling was in the army going through training when he had an accident that changed the course of his life.

While doing a parachute jump from a helicopter, he landed successfully, but then someone landed on top of him, severing a nerve to his legs.

At first, he thought he might lose his legs, but fortunately doctors were able to save them. However, the accident ended his army career. Because of his medical discharge from the army, he began receiving his military pension. “It doesn’t seem like I earned it,” Smith said, “but I can take care of the vets when they get home.”

That was his thought, which took focus when he was watching the television show Dirty Jobs. He started thinking about all the products that were going to landfills that could be reclaimed.

His first trial was when he found someone who wanted to get rid of six mattresses. He and his brother picked them up, took them apart, and found ways to use or recycle all of the materials.

With those ideas in mind, he founded SGT’s Recycling and began hiring vets who needed jobs. “Some of them were homeless,” Smith said. Now he has 22 employees in a 100,000 sq.ft. facility who dismantle, sort and re-purpose the discarded items that come in. “It’s not manufacturing,” he said, “it’s de-manufacturing.”

In the first 6 month of business, they processed 500 tons of material, and out of all of that, only about a ton of it was actual waste. “In my next system, I want to take everything that landfills are taking,” Smith said. “Nobody will be out of a job, we’re just going to stop burying it.”

Smith said that it wasn’t long after the business opened its doors that furniture stores started calling, looking for ways to recycle used or damaged products, and that included mattresses. Smith decided to make good use of the foam and stuffing materials and began designing safety barrier bales for race tracks.

He said that before he was in the service, he sometimes raced, and he hit the walls a few times, “and they’re hard.” The tracks were using hay bales as barriers, which were better than concrete – but the bales Smith was designing were even softer. They’re also completely sealed, so they don’t absorb water, and they can be painted with sponsors’ names for events. Smith said they’re also a good replacement for highway barriers – typically 55-gallon drums filled with water. “But they freeze in the winter,” he said. Smith is thinking about starting a Kickstarter campaign to fund the equipment necessary to make the bales. “The phones are ringing now for safe barrier walls,” he said.

The company takes in just about anything and everything, except, “I haven’t gotten into light bulbs,” Smith said. Besides mattresses and furniture, they take in appliances, electronics, televisions and all sorts of household goods. The oddest thing was a human head, previously used in a classroom. Now it has a new home in a medical school in Texas.

Smith is always thinking of new ways to use old materials. He’s working on turning plastic into oil without heating it. “We’re trying to keep the air clean,” he said. He built a generator that uses landfill gasses. “We have a fab shop in our building,” he said. “I don’t see a problem; I want to fix it,” Smith said.

Smith said they don’t charge anyone for taking the materials. “To get the good things that we can re-sell, you have to take everything,” he said. “From A to Z, we do it all.”

While Smith is passionate about keeping materials out of landfills – and he even goes to landfills to pick up appliances for recycling – he’s most proud of the fact that he’s given jobs to local vets, and he’s seen their lives improved. When the business was founded three years ago, some of the new employees were homeless, but now none of them are.

Some of the employees see their jobs as permanent careers, while others use it as a stepping stone to other jobs, or a first place to land after leaving the service. Some of them suffer from disabilities that would make it harder for them to find work in an environment that isn’t as aware of vet’s concerns. “I have psychiatrists on hand because some of them have PTSD,” Smith said.

“Some people don’t understand the things that go through our guys heads with PTSD,” Smith said, so it’s great for them to work next to other vets who do understand. But he also has hired “civilians” to work side-by-side with the vets, because “we want the vets to get used to civilian life.”

He has adapted the work environment to accommodate his workers’ physical limitations, making it easier for them to do their jobs, and has hired a cook “so these guys get one good meal.”

After three years in business, Smith still hasn’t taken a paycheck. He said that if the business becomes very profitable, he will pay himself. But for now, it’s not his priority. “I want it to make a difference,” he said. “I’m going to make it work. This is a company that can just keep giving. The bigger it gets, the more people we can help.”


Published in the September 2014 Edition of American Recycler News