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the outskirts of Los Angeles’s Chinatown, in an

industrial neighborhood of low-slung, graffiti-bombed buildings made of cinderblock and corrugated steel, three men are hard at work inside a warehouse. Though they’re surrounded by all manner of computer, communications, and video technology—keyboards and cell phones and screens are everywhere—not one of them is typing a word or crunching any numbers. If it’s accurate to say that these men work for a technology-related start-up, it should quickly be added that this isn’t the kind most people would envision. These keyboards are dusty; the screens are dark. The atmosphere is about as cutting-edge as the old computer equipment, giant fax machines, dinosaur-era dot-matrix printers, and superannuated VCRs that share space in this potter’s field for electronica. One man is moving heavy pallets across the floor. Another, bent over a workbench overflowing with computer motherboards, scours the shiny bounty of their circuitry like a cyberpunk prospector. The third sifts through a small mountain of monitors: beige relics from the not-so-distant era when the desktop still reigned supreme. All three work for Isidore Recycling, a company with a seemingly straightforward mission: to find the hidden value in what others have cast aside. Since its founding in 2011, Isidore (named for St. Isidore of Seville, widely considered to be the patron saint of computing) has intercepted more than 150 tons of discarded high-tech gadgetry. Every year, electronics consumers around the world generate at least 20 million tons of “e-waste.” In 2012, according to the United Nations, Americans were responsible for 10.3 million tons, only onequarter of which was recycled. All of this poses a real problem—as well as a real opportunity. The salvageable commodities to be found in our e-waste, mainly precious metals like gold and copper, share space with a number of hazardous and difficult-to-extract materials such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. For its part, the city of Los Angeles currently recycles less than 25 percent—about 1,500 tons—of its annual e-waste output. Kabira Stokes, Isidore’s founder and CEO, looks at all of this high-tech trash and sees in it a veritable gold mine (or copper mine, depending). Through a process known as de-manufacturing, her employees collect and sort unwanted electronics donated by individuals or companies. Salvageable metals, plastics, and wire are bundled and sold to certified processors en route to being recycled into new goods. Items that aren’t completely beyond redemption are repaired, cleaned up, and resold. But at Isidore, the philosophy of redemption doesn’t stop with motherboards and monitors. The men working the floor are themselves part of a reclamation project: each of them came to work at Isidore after serving hard time in California’s correctional system. As ex-prisoners, they are generally considered among the least employable individuals in society. But if the word “recycling” means anything to Stokes, it means believing in second chances and salvation. From a purely business standpoint, it also means capitalizing on the considerable energies and talents of an overlooked, undervalued segment of the labor force. As Stokes puts it: “It doesn’t make sense that just because someone messes up and serves time, we never actually forgive them. It’s not working. And it’s a waste of value.” the first quarter of 2013 was Isidore’s best on record:

Stokes and her employees collected and processed 20 tons of e-waste in that three-month period. Then, in early May, an electrical fire 3 8 onearth

spring 2014

ravaged the company’s warehouse, destroying much of its inventory and forcing it into temporary space. “The silver lining is that we got to reboot,” says Stokes. The tall, blond, 35-year-old Philadelphia native is clearly someone who believes that setbacks—even outright disasters—carry within them the seeds of rebirth. As a graduate student in public policy at the University of Southern California, Stokes studied the criminal justice system, particularly the challenges and roadblocks routinely faced by ex-prisoners as they attempt to reenter society. Her research led her to an obvious question: “What are we doing when folks come out of prison? Because 98 percent of them do.” In graduate school, Stokes also took courses exploring the idea of sustainable cities, which in turn led her to take a closer look at the

impact emerging industries were having on Southern California’s land, air, and water. She began to see how her two fields of study were complementary: both were concerned with what it takes to make a community healthy, in a holistic sense. Later, while working at Green For All, an organization founded by the social activist (and NRDC board member) Van Jones and dedicated to bringing green jobs to urban areas, Stokes visited Recycle Force, an Indianapolis-based fullservice recycling facility co-founded by Gregg Keesling and staffed largely by ex-prisoners. Suddenly her varied public policy interests cohered into a single, unified vision. After returning to Los Angeles, Stokes posted a query on a job-seeking and networking website aimed at sustainability-minded students, professionals, and employers. In it she announced that she “wanted to start an e-waste company that would hire formerly incarcerated people. And I was looking for a co-founder.” She got only two responses. One came from Aaron Malloy, an MBA candidate at the University of Southern California. Malloy’s profile certainly suggested that he’d be a good fit for the sort of enterprise Stokes was imagining. In addition to the business degree he was pursuing, he had a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and had worked for a nonprofit that prepared at-risk high school students for the job-seeking and educational challenges facing them. But something else distinguished him. Malloy, an African American

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways

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