St. Anthony: Tech Dump mines treasure, jobs from electronic junk

Tech Dump takes on discarded electronic items – and also takes on workers who find jobs hard to get.

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Tech Dump Executive Director Tom McCullough, left, spoke with Ben Johnson about the computer parts he was disassembling at the Tech Dump plant.

Photo: Photos by JOEL KOYAMA• jkoyama@startribune.com,

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The folks at Tech Dump, a small Golden Valley business, have big reasons to take pride in their operation.

This four-year-old enterprise, which collects, refurbishes or recycles consumer electronics, plans to double employment this year to about 40 people as it doubles volume to about 4 million pounds and revenue of $2 million-plus from converting what once was thought of as junk to a refurbished product or recycled as feedstock for other manufactured products.

Tech Dump is a small but significant part of Minnesota’s growing quest to collect consumer “techno-trash” — about 33 million pounds a year of home computers, cellphones, stereo equipment, VCRs, TVs and other stuff that contains cadmium, mercury and lead that can contaminate groundwater, but also iron, copper, aluminum and metals that have significant value.

Moreover, Tech Dump also seeks to salvage folks in need of a second chance. Most employees are ex-offenders who have a tough time finding that first job out of jail.

“In prison, you learn patience and that you can only affect what you can touch,” said operations manager Dave Ritchie, 48, who once spent three years locked up for drug offenses. “We focus here on the work and small obtainable goals such as helping people with housing, health care and taxes.

“We have had a few bad apples here who generally weed themselves out. But most of these guys would bleed for me. And, as people learn about us, we have a lot of people going out of their way to help us. And to make an honest living out of somebody else’s trash is a lovely thing.”

Tech Dump is what’s known as a “social enterprise,” the operating business of a foundation started by business partners George Lee and Tom McCullough. They have met success through their Probus Online Inc., an Internet retailer that peddles private label and established-branded products — everything from ATV winches to vehicle covers and products for massage and spa businesses.

“We know how to generate cash by selling stuff on the Internet,” quipped Lee, who in 2002 joined McCullough, a veteran of the cellphone industry.

The business partners said they’d always written checks to charity and served on several nonprofit boards. But by 2008 they decided to launch their own nonprofit venture.

“My pastor asked me to talk to a guy with a felony and we hired him in our warehouse and he thanked me every day,” Lee said. “We started thinking more about forming a self-supporting business with a social mission that would make a difference in people’s lives.”

They formed the Jobs Foundation. Their first venture was a recycled-furniture operation that got little traction. Meanwhile, a 2007 Minnesota law was taking effect that banned consumer electronics from incinerators and landfills.

“One of our employees suggested electronics recycling,” Lee said. “At our first collection event, we ended up filling two 53-foot trailers. I thought there may be a business here.”

Lee and McCullough invested or loaned at no interest to Tech Dump several hundred thousand dollars for equipment, trucks, training and government licenses in 2010-11.

McCullough, who is the unpaid executive director, said Tech Dump is proving that business and markets can play a key role in solving a potential pollution problem, create revenue that’s used to employ second-chance folks, most of whom make $9 to $12 an hour, and engage citizens in the environmental and employment causes.

“This gives us a chance to put in our business practices and also hire guys who need a job,” McCullough said last week. “I don’t necessarily want them to stay here that long. For example, two of our employees are ‘graduating’ to become painters and make more money. Several of our guys just want to stay here, and that’s fine. One of them never had a job and now he’s got the dignity of a job and an apartment. We just try to bring out the best in each other.”

Tech Dump works with municipalities, companies, churches and service groups to schedule pickups, as well as on-site collection at its expanded facility on Boone Avenue in Golden Valley.

“I first found Tech Dump during an online search,” said Monica Hill, a manager at Activision, a software publisher. “We have used Tech Dump on many occasions. … We use a lot of IT equipment and electronics. They tend to accumulate over the years, and our move was a great opportunity to purge.

“Tech Dump team members are professional, courteous and easy to work with. The added bonus is knowing our equipment is being disposed of in a safe and secure manner.”

Said Dan Platta, a Cargill manager: “Cargill has three focus areas for community engagement in the Twin Cities, including education, nutrition and environment. Tech Dump parlays two of those, providing education and job skills to its employees as well as an environmentally friendly way for our employees to dispose of their unwanted electronics. Over the past two years, Cargill’s Tech Dump event has collected more than 40,000 pounds of electronics from our employees, and we are looking forward to another successful event this spring.”

Tech Dump is one of 217 collectors and 75 recyclers registered by the state collecting most of our electronic junk. A small but significant portion still ends up getting dumped illegally, said Garth Hickle, product stewardship manager with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Ben Johnson, a Tech Dump employee breaking down computer parts and expertly tossing each piece into its proper bin, said: “At one point in my life, I would have thought this is a bunch of junk. But it’s kind of like a puzzle and I figure it out. And now I know that one man’s junk is another’s treasure.”

Much of Minnesota’s e-waste collected by companies and government programs is hauled to large firms such as Materials Processing, Waste Management, Electronic Recyclers and others who segregate the toxic stuff for reprocessing and sell the aluminum, circuit boards, gold, silver, palladium, other metals and recyclables to smelters and other industrial concerns.

 

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • neal.st.anthony@startribune.com





 

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