Special work force erases, then recycles tapes, disks

Sunday, January 5, 2003

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- There's a distinct mechanized sound that often fills the workshop at the Alternative Community Training offices.

When the magnet inside ACT's degaussing machine comes on, it emits a pitch similar to the engine of a small plane as it erases stored data on computer disks and videocassette tapes. The magnetic pulse can delete any term paper off a diskette or erase a favorite VHS copy of "Star Wars." But the information ACT destroys has little value; the disks and tapes it deals with are discarded regularly by software companies and video production houses.

The nationally accredited not-for-profit agency has made a name for itself since the early 1990s erasing and reformatting these used media to like-new quality. In a busy month, ACT's work force can ship out about 200,000 recycled and ready-to-use computer disks. In October, ACT processed and sold about 114,000 videotapes.

"We're completely dependent on them and the tasks they do for us," said David Beschen, president of Redmond, Wash.-based Green Disk, which has been a partner with ACT since 1995. Green Disk sells computer diskettes and clear plastic CD jewel cases nationally.

All about options

ACT has also created a level of self-fulfillment and achievement for local people with disabilities who yearn to work and live in comfortable surroundings. Along with its affirmative industry program, ACT helps about 200 people with disabilities annually through its supported employment, supported living and daytime activity programs.

"It's all about providing more choices and options for them," said Don Lafferty. He directs the agency's supported living program, which helps 36 people in Boone County. "They have the right to live and work where they want, to be as productive as possible."

'It found us'

When ACT received a Small Business Administration loan in 1989 to move into its 15,000-square-foot facility, it suddenly needed to identify an affirmative industry to keep its workers busy there.

"We hadn't actually identified recycling" videotapes. "It found us," said Mark Hassemer, ACT's executive director since 1984 who's been with the organization for most of its 27-year history. A Wisconsin native, Hassemer started as a teacher in 1977 for the Woodhaven School. ACT's predecessor agency provided educational services for children with disabilities.

Fate played into ACT's evolution in 1990 when it was approached by a Los Angeles-based videotape brokerage firm, Magnetic Resources, which had family ties to central Missouri. The company was looking to join with a not-for-profit agency to create a market for used tapes along with meaningful jobs for disabled people.

ACT then benefited from a public service announcement by Bob Saget, then the host of "America's Funniest Home Videos." The national PSA implored video production houses and television stations to donate used tapes to ACT.

"When that hit, the video tapes started coming in by the truckloads," Hassemer recalled. "It still continues today, even though we don't have huge marketing efforts."

Since the early 1990s, ACT has recycled and resold nearly 3.5 million videotapes of various sizes and time lengths. Bigger clients have been cable giant Home Box Office, or HBO, while smaller clients include high school coaches who need tapes for athlete training and game review.

The logical next step to expand ACT's mission was to look at another magnetic medium, computer diskettes. That effort took on its own life in 1995 through local software company Datastorm Technologies and its then-operations manager, Jim Williams.

'The idea of fulfillment'

"If you look at the regular national unemployment rate, it's about 6 percent, but for people with disabilities, the rate is right around 70 percent," Beschen said. "What we have always stressed in our involvement with ACT is the idea of fulfillment and how people with disabilities can be productive."

Computers and electronic devices have a tendency to become obsolete quicker than most consumer products. That means computer disks and videotapes are gradually losing favor to CD-ROMs, DVDs and digital tape.

"We do see ourselves as evolving," Hassemer said. "Digital technologies will have an impact, but we believe that videotape and computer disks will be here for a while longer."

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