Tech dump is finding a place for ex-offenders

Electronic waste is the fastest-growing garbage stream in the world. This nonprofit is counting on it to give formerly incarcerated people a head start.

There is no obvious solution for recycling electronics. Are they plastic, metal, or hazardous chemicals? Electronic waste is the fastest-growing garbage stream in the world. But breaking down the gadgets into recyclable parts is slow work.

But Tech Dump, a Minnesota nonprofit, is up to the task — and they’re focusing on employing recently incarcerated men and women, providing real-world job experience to people who might need another chance.

“My hope is that Tech Dump is not only a place that is employing people that are often overlooked because of a criminal background, but that that we are also proving that a business can be successful by prioritizing our work on this amazing group of talent,” said Amanda LaGrange, the CEO of Tech Dump, in a video.

“We’re proving those stereotypes wrong. We’re showing that they are amazing people that might have had experience with the justice system and have so much to bring to our community.”

LaGrange’s friend first conceived of the idea for Tech Dump because they wanted to build a business that employed ex-offenders. Eventually, they focused on the task of recycling and repurposing discarded electronics and e-waste.

And, with electronic waste being an ever-expanding trash stream, business is good.

The nonprofit offers recently incarcerated people a work-readiness program that provides job training and professional experience for 18 months to give men and women the skills they need to get a job.

So far, Tech Dump is on a roll — recycling three to four million pounds of electronic waste a year.

“We recycle anything with a cable, cord, or battery,” says LaGrange, adding that the most common items are laptops, desktops, flat-screen TVs, and old tube-style TVs.

The staff manually breaks down each electronic waste item, one by one, with hand tools, drills, and screwdrivers, removing tiny screws and salvaging any parts they can. Some things are refurbished and sold at the sister resale store, Tech Discounts, reports Grist. Other items are dismantled into the plastic, aluminum, or copper components and recycled.

Diverting electronics from landfills is important work, too.

“We underestimate how harmful the contents of our electronics are,” says LaGrange. Lead, mercury, polybrominated flame retardants, and lithium are only a few of the harmful elements contained in electronic waste. For example, there can be up to three kilograms of lead in an old-style CRT computer screen. If dumped in a badly designed landfill, that could leach into the ground and contaminate our drinking water.

LaGrange hopes that by reclaiming some of those materials, there will be less toxic waste, damage to the environment, and less destructive mining.

“When I think of who inspires me in this industry, it’s my team,” she says. “They are recycling important resources.”

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