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The Business Of Reuse: Tech Entrepreneur Diverts E-Waste, Teaches Future IT Experts

Computers, smart phones and other electronics often end up in landfills just a couple years after they're manufactured. The United Nations says electronic waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in developed developing countries alike, and it can be hazardous.

Triangle Ecycling is a company in Durham that refurbishes used computers and other electronics, and sells them at up to 60-percent off their original price. It collects the computers local companies, like those in the research Triangle Park, and local agencies.

Larry Herst created the company three years ago to keep toxic and dangerous electronic waste out of landfills.

"We collect anywhere from 30,000 to sometimes 100,000 pounds a month of what I'll call e-waste," says Herst.

He says it's mostly computers, and more than half of them can be refurbished and re-sold. The rest is taken to a local technology recycler, which strips parts down for plastic, copper and other materials.

Nothing goes to the landfill. These are lofty goals for a small company. Triangle Ecycling is no charity.

Herst says the profit margins are small, but he wanted to show that for-profit companies can do good in the world.

"We're providing a role in offering kids hands-on education in how to fix computers, about recycle electronics, start a business and running a business that provides a positive social function like this. That's really our mission."

The company has eight employees, but much of the computer furbishing work is done by interns from local high schools. They evaluate processors and update software under the watchful eye of in-house teacher Oleg Nepliouev. During the school year, they get class credit. In the summer, they're paid by the Mayor's Summer Youth Work Internship Program.

A teenage boy cleans a computer.
Credit Rebecca Martinez / WUNC
Chris Covington blows the dust out of a computer.

A sharp hiss pierces the hum of florescent lights and second-hand computers in the office-warehouse. 

Seventeen-year-old Chris Covington is shooting compressed air across the components of one disassembled computer. It's a cast-off from Durham County government.

"Right now I'm airing out all the dusk that is in here because some computers, they're really really dusty."

Chris is a senior at the South Durham School of Engineering. He's getting school credit for his work at Triangle Ecycling. He plans to study computer science in college.

"Mostly I've been helping fix computers. Oleg's been teaching some new stuff... Like how to look up drivers and stuff of that nature. I'm learning a whole lot of stuff here."

The internship program is popular with Major Coleman, who teaches computer engineering at Durham's Hillside High School.

Coleman worked at IBM for years before becoming a technology educator, and 10 of his current and former students have interned at Triangle Ecycling. He says the hands-on experience they're getting outside the classroom is invaluable preparation for pursuing certifications and looking for jobs.

"In this business, your value is based on how much you know and what you know," says Coleman. "So, based on my school and Triangle Ecycling, they're getting a good dose of reality."

Triangle Ecycling will take on a new batch of paid interns this summer.

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