Cass coasters: recovering glass and wood and their purpose


Brandon Carmichael came to Green Industries without much work experience, but now has manufacturing know-how through a product. Students at the University of Michigan designed to help homeless men and people with disabilities learn valuable job skills.

Carmichael makes boxes from reclaimed wood from Detroit homes in a multi-step process that contain recycled glass coasters.

“This program taught me everything I really wanted to do. I mean, it’s a challenge, ”he said. “My skills that I learned there, yes I can go elsewhere and work.”

The mini roller coaster company was born out of a UM course that brought together students in business, engineering, and art and design. The class worked closely with Cass Community Social Services, a Detroit-based non-profit organization dedicated to providing food, housing, health services and employment programs, to reflect and create l ‘business.

The original glass coasters feature murals of the “Detroit Wailing Wall” near 8 Mile Road and Wyoming, which was built in 1940 to separate black and white neighborhoods. Images of brightly colored homes, factories and neighbors added years later gave the wall new meaning.

“We fell in love with the imagery… and the story arc was especially appealing here because the wall was built to divide us. And we’re going to take the image of this wall on a project that brings us together, serving some of the same people this wall was meant to disadvantage, ”said Bill Lovejoy, Raymond TJ Perring family business administration professor at the UM Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

“So to come full circle, I thought there was a very powerful story behind the roller coaster. You talk about a wall that allows a group of people to invest in their property so that there is some equity to pass on to their children who benefit from it. And the other half on the other side of that wall, they can’t do that, ”said Lovejoy, who received the Spirit of the City of Detroit award from the Detroit City Council in 2018.

Lovejoy challenged his students to use materials that would otherwise go into the waste stream. So they toured the wasteland of Detroit and found a good quantity of rubber, glass and wood. There was very little metal because it is being salvaged. Then they thought about what they could design with the materials.

Students installed production equipment in Cass in 2012 and set about teaching homeless men how to use it. Since then, thousands of coasters have been produced by Green Industries, which also creates mud mats from abandoned tires and pays disabled adults to shred documents for recycling.

Workers can put 50 coasters in the oven at a time. It takes 24 hours to cook and then cool them. As the work progressed, the men began to take control of the process and suggest ways to fix the issues and make a better product. They have since added coasters with images of iconic Detroit buildings, inspirational quotes from leaders for African American History Month, and a series on Cass’s Tiny Homes initiative.

And, said Lovejoy, it’s an example of college making a positive difference in the world without a fanfare. It’s about doing the little things that change people’s lives. The goal of men now is to get up in the morning and go to work. They earn some money and can give a friend a dinner or buy a birthday present for a loved one.

And now they’re just trying to keep up with demand for coasters, which sell for $ 25 for a set of four, said Reverend Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services and an assistant professor at the Dearborn campus of the ‘UM. .

Finding jobs for homeless men was difficult, she said, but riding the roller coaster gave them a chance to be creative, earn money and be part of a group. Green Industries employs 83 homeless people.

“It’s a great product,” Fowler said.

Green Industries, a division of Cass Community Social Services, started in 2007 during the housing crisis, when jobs were hard to find. They started out by collecting illegally discarded tires from which they made mud mats.

“It all has to do with the environment, because the poor are the first and most affected by pollution, the degradation of the planet,” Fowler said. “We have tried to create jobs that will have more than one function. We are going to clean up the air, the land and the water, and allow people to have jobs that cannot be outsourced, and potentially a living wage.

Onye Ahanotu, a 2012 UM graduate with a master’s degree in materials science engineering and part of the original student team, said the project was as “real” as it was at university. While the team started out with a glass planter, production issues made this difficult to maintain, so they opted for the glass coasters.

“We had an idea. This idea could have ended there, and in many schools, I feel like it stops there, ”Ahanotu said. “But we kept going, we actually implemented a real process, and I think that’s the really unique part of the University of Michigan.”

Chandra McDuffie, supervisor at Green Industries, says the great thing about coasters and other manufacturing processes is that they help build the confidence of people like Carmichael. He started out as a developmental customer with disabilities and developed skills in the manufacture of coasters and coaster boxes. And now he is employed full time.

“Some people don’t have skills. You teach them to do something. They have a job. So they could advance in the job market, ”McDuffie said. “You can work here, build a roller coaster one day, and work at Ford the next. You never know who is going to come in and be a contact and help you improve.

The coasters business “is a wonderful thing because it gives jobs back and it recycles because we have a planet. So if we recycle things, maybe we can stay here a little longer, ”she said.

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