Here are things Tyrone Walker has learned taking apart old computers in a St. Paul warehouse:
—Apple computers are hard to dismantle.
—When it comes to circuit boards, "the older, the golder," because early computers used more of the precious metal to conduct electricity.
—A job isn't something to take for granted.
The 27-year-old St. Paul man and co-workers at the nonprofit Tech Dump this year will refurbish or recycle about 5 million pounds of Minnesota's cast-off electronic equipment, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports.
Little more than a year after expanding from the west metro to St. Paul, the organization has become a player in an industry dominated by Best Buy's recycling program and a handful of for-profit recyclers out of state.
And e-recycling isn't even Tech Dump's mission, but rather a means to an end. The nonprofit's purpose is to create employment for people, mostly men, with criminal records.
More than a decade ago, Tech Dump founder and Twin Cities businessman George Lee was asked by his pastor to talk to a man who had been imprisoned for a felony and couldn't find employment. Lee hired the man to work at his Internet retail company in Golden Valley.
"He came into my office every day for years, every single day, to tell me thank you for giving me a job," recalled Lee. "I said, 'holy smokes, there are more people than this gentleman with this problem.' I said 'what can I do about this?' "
Lee started a sideline venture employing ex-cons to clear out and sell used office furniture.
Soon, they were being asked to take old computers. Then in 2011, the newly named Tech Dump advertised a free disposal event for the public at a St. Louis Park shopping center.
"We had 900 cars lined up and filled up two semi-trucks full of donated electronics," said Lee. "I said, 'you know, I think there might be a business here. There appears to be an unmet need.'"
Tech Dump grew quickly, thanks in part to the Internet marketing team at Lee's for-profit company, which pushed Tech Dump high in Google searches.
Several years later, the nonprofit employs 10 people in Golden Valley who refurbish and sell used computers on eBay and another 37 in a warehouse in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood who dismantle electronics.
On a recent weekday, the warehouse was abuzz with electric screwdrivers and the beep of a forklift backing up. A woman from Shoreview drove up to the door, popped her trunk and unloaded a couple of speakers, a keyboard, an external antenna, a DVD player, a webcam, an old desktop and a pile of cables.
"It's all been sitting in my garage for a while," she said. "I'd been procrastinating and I wasn't sure what to do with it."
"You're not the only one," said Amanda LaGrange, who became Tech Dump's executive director this year after leaving a job in corporate finance at General Mills to, as she put it, "use business to help solve some of these big world problems."
"I think it's easier to just focus on making money, or to focus just on helping people," said LaGrange, as she gave a tour of operations. "It's a whole different challenge to try to do both."
It's been especially challenging with slumping prices for scrap metal and recycled plastic. These days, the refurbishing division in Golden Valley keeps the recycling division afloat, LaGrange said. The nonprofit receives no grants for operations. To get newer computers with resale value, Tech Dump is pursuing more donations from businesses. About 50 percent of machines by weight now come from businesses, including Activision, Bachman's and General Mills.
Tech Dump accepts anything with a cable cord or battery, but not appliances such as microwaves, dehumidifiers and fridges. Televisions and monitors with cathode ray tubes are shrink-wrapped and trucked to a recycler that Tech Dump pays to handle the hazardous lead glass. This summer, Tech Dump received R2 certification, a third-party endorsement of its environmental and data safety practices. Many other items, like desktop computers, are dismantled in St. Paul and components shipped elsewhere to be shredded and melted for scrap.
"I'm trying to figure out how to take out the power supply," said Walker, as he peered through safety goggles into the silvery curved case of an old Power Mac G4. "This is really frustrating. There are just no screws back there. Apple is really hard to take apart. They take, like, an hour."
After a fruitless minute looking for screws, Walker set the machine aside and grabbed a decade-old Dell desktop off a pallet. It was mid-afternoon, and he'd already taken apart dozens of them. He flipped off the metal bottom and tossed it into a cardboard box of scrap and then unscrewed the disc drive, ribbon wires, power supply, the processor, an aluminum heat sink, the motherboard and a hard drive. Tech Dump guarantees data destruction, but some clients take it into their own hands. One local law firm delivered hard drives pierced by bullet holes.
Like nearly every employee, Walker had a record, but in his case, it was due to mistaken identity. Walker's brother was arrested for a crime while carrying Walker's driver's license.
"I think that's why it was so hard for me to find a job," said Walker, a married father of three. Tech Dump helped him pay the $300 fee to get fingerprinted and have the mistaken charges removed, he said.
Other employees share similar stories of criminal records haunting their efforts to find housing and work.
"I was looking for a job, but all the doors were closed," said Larry Harris, 56, who was released in January after serving two years in prison for assault. He was worn down by temp service jobs when someone at his halfway house suggested he apply at Tech Dump.
"I told them the nature of my crime and how long I was locked up, and I told them I was going to AA and other programs while I was in prison. They gave me a chance when nobody else would."
Tech Dump managers helped Harris find an apartment in south Minneapolis. In time, they will also help him find other work. Tech Dump employees start at $9 an hour, and the organization partners with job training organizations like Twin Cities Rise to help men move into better paying work. A handful of men have "graduated" from Tech Dump, but for now, Harris is content where he is.
"I feel a lot of gratitude," said Harris, as he loaded plastic into the baling machine. "It motivates me to start focusing on things I need to do. I've had jobs where supervisors were uppity and demanding, and here, they need the job done and expect you to do it, but they talk to you as a person. They told me, I don't know where you messed up, but right now, you are a big asset to this company. Nobody ever told me that before."
An AP Exchange feature by Maja Beckstrom, St. Paul Pioneer Press