Inside Human-IT in Detroit, the facility that transforms new decommissioned electronics

Inside Human-IT in Detroit, the facility that transforms new decommissioned electronics

Hard drives destroyed by the Human-IT facility’s “crusher” before being sent for further recycling to another center. (Photo courtesy of Jamal Washington.)

When Brian Bivona opened one of the many large cardboard boxes scattered around the Human-IT facility, inside were laptops stacked neatly next to each other. They look like they have never been touched.

But the dozens of computers inside are old enough to be considered junk by company standards. In another era, these old electronic devices would have ended up in a dumpster headed for a landfill after a few years of use.

But when one sees a treasure in another’s trash, Bivona and the Human-IT team in Detroit envision a different future for the piles of old electronic devices that rest in their warehouse. And they know exactly what to do with it.

“Everything he leaves here is tested and good for use,” says Bivona, walking past piles of printers, computers, hard drives, monitors, keyboards and mice. It will take about two months for the same equipment piled up in the warehouse to become someone’s personal workstation at home.

Such devices could be sent to another recycling center. Or they could be cleaned, deleted, and sent back to the community through one of the company’s online stores. For hard drives sent for recycling, they are destroyed in the facility’s “crusher,” a small box that does exactly what it sounds like.

The crusher looks older than most of the technology it is destroying, sharing the same beige color that older computers sold in the 1990s had. Human-IT no longer receives much of the technology of that era. Plus, it’s not very destructive either.

Human-IT’s work has propelled them into niche fields that seem unrelated: waste management and digital equity. But a closer look at the company’s approach to the problems of excessive junk and insufficient digital access reveals how closely related both fields are.

It also suggests what is possible when creative solutions are put to the test.

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Collecting old Human-IT technologies is only the first step towards ambitious environmental and social goals. The process that goes on in the Oakman Boulevard community diverts heavy metal toxins from landfills, while connecting people with recycled electronics that are too old for the industry, but too young to discard.

“We are past the point where recycling will lead us to what we need from an environmental perspective,” said Leo Kowalyk, a senior executive of business development at Human-IT. “Recycling is better than landfilling, it’s better than dumping. But people should try to reuse first.”

The nonprofit organization entered the scene in 2021 when a partnership was announced between them and the City of Detroit to connect low-income families with computers and internet access at a time when digital connectivity was in dire need.

E-waste donated to Human-IT is first sorted, erased from all data, then prepared for online sale. (Photo courtesy of Jamal Washington)

Headquartered in Los Angeles, Human-IT selected Detroit as its second location to accommodate donations from the Eastern United States and the neighboring community’s need for salvaged computers and accessible Internet.

There are two percentage points the company likes to cite when emphasizing its goal: 2 and 80. E-waste makes up only 2% of what it collects in landfills, but is behind 80% of lead, cadmium, mercury and other heavy metal toxins that pose risks to groundwater and human health.

One way to manage this waste is to recycle all parts of the device: from the plastic buttons on the keyboard and the precious metals in the circuit boards, to the raw metal of the outer casing. It’s not a bad option if it means keeping it off the ground, says the Human-IT team.

But the company says there’s a better option.

“The technology we’re getting with three years of wear still has a good seven to eight years,” said Bivona.

A computer no longer used by Rocket Mortgage, one of Human-IT’s clients, may still find a home in the hands of a Detroit high school student just entering their first year or an online shopper looking for parts to build their own. device.

The property also accepts old electronic devices from residents who wish to donate, as long as they set a delivery time. A complete list of what they accept can be found here. Detroit residents can also donate to the city’s household hazardous waste facility.

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When e-waste arrives, its journey takes place in three general stages: collection and inventory, processing and cleaning, preparation and resale.

First, when it arrives, the equipment is sorted by type: laptops with laptops, printers with printers. The company aims to inventory and process all donated devices within 60 days – 30 days for sorting and 15 days for deletion. It may take longer depending on the amount of waste entering.

Finally, the devices are tested to make sure they work properly before being photographed and prepared for online sale.

The company sells its devices on two online portals: eBay for its regular customers and a separate online store called hitconnect for eligible buyers who may be low-income, seniors, disabled, military vets, or other nonprofits. Using the first revenue stream as a means to fund its mission, the company offers what it describes as its four pillars of device delivery, affordable internet, digital skills training, and technical support.

“This is our way of creating equal opportunities for those on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said Bonnie Johnson, senior operations manager at Human-IT.

The internet and computer access have rarely played a more important role in the lives of students and families than it is right now. When the pandemic drove both work and school home, poor populations had a hard time finding a way to keep up.

Human-IT has two online portals through which it sells its recycled electronic devices: on eBay or through its hitconnect store where eligible low-income families can purchase the devices at a discount. (Photo courtesy of Jamal Washington)

Johnson says Human-IT helps connect those groups with computers, low-cost Internet options, and the skills to use both.

The company has distributed hundreds of thousands of devices in its decade-long history and diverted 9 million pounds of electronic waste from landfills. In Detroit since 2020 they have distributed 13,777 devices, helped 2,442 homes with internet access, and diverted over one million pounds of electronic waste.

But the metric that the company most interested in monitoring is not yet the one they have defined: the impact that the provision of these services offers to communities in need. With more waste donated and the need for more electronic devices available at home, Human-IT sees its business grow.

In late April, Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence visited the facility as part of an introduction to legislation to distribute computers and other technologies to schools, veterans and seniors.

They also plan to open a physical version of their store available to low-income families to provide in-person technical support. Meanwhile, they have set a goal of collecting 400,000 pounds of e-waste while working with the city, a 20% increase from last year. They also want to provide computers and the Internet to hundreds of Detroit families by early October.

At the same time, the facility continues to add recycling steps internally, further reducing the amount of waste they can recycle.

“The whole premise of our drive is to eliminate and reduce steps so that we are constantly recycling how we work our processes,” said Johnson. “The more we shrink the moving waste, the more we will save.”

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