Nonprofit and tech company work together to clean up e-waste, help the disabled | nnbusinessview.com

Nonprofit and tech company work together to clean up e-waste, help the disabled

Sally Roberts | sroberts@nnbw.biz

Making the world a better place develops many partnerships, sometimes pairing diverse industries.

Disability Resources, which began in 1993, is a nonprofit that helps individuals with disabilities achieve their highest potential through an assortment of support programs, including skills training.

Itronics Inc. is a cleantech company that uses science and engineering to create commercial products from waste materials.

The two businesses have formed a partnership that removes highly polluting e-waste from the streams of garbage heading to the dump.

The process starts at Disability Resources office on Greg Street in Sparks where donated computers and other electronics are sorted. Some are refurbished, others dismantled.

Disability Resources trains people with disabilities to be part of the process. The goal is to not just learn job skills, but also earn a wage.

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"It's not only job training," said Vivian Ruiz, executive director of Disability Resources and its companion business, New2U Computers. "The end result for us is to help build job skills — it's hard to place people with disabilities — and they can go out into the community."

Ruiz noted two disabled individuals who were recently hired for full-time positions with benefits at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport and Arrow Electric.

The nonprofit's work has been noticed.

Recently, Disability Resources received a $16,830 Quality of Life Grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. The funds were used to purchase adjustable furniture, to help those with poor fine and gross motor skills to work more comfortably; a handicap accessible door; and it provided a portion of the funds needed to buy a degausser, which wipes all data from hard drives to protect the security of previous owners.

At Disability Resources, workers — who are referred through federal and state programs — learn a variety of jobs to either refurbish or dismantle the electronics donated to the nonprofit for recycling.

Training programs are tailored for each individual. Some start at tasks as basic as cleaning keyboards. All 150 people in the program earn at or above minimum wage for the work they perform.

Refurbished computers, cell phones, tablets, and game consoles are either donated or sold through the organization's store, New2U Computers. The company also sells products online.

"We give free computers to people with disabilities in the community, built with the help of individuals in the program," Ruiz said.

In 2015, Disability Resources collected more than 147,000 pounds of e-waste. It gave more than 160 computers to people with disabilities and recycled more than 450 computers back to the public that would have otherwise ended up in landfills.

Electronics that cannot be refurbished are taken to a warehouse in back of New2U to be dismantled. About 35-40 people are part of the disassembly team.

"We break everything down to the required specifications for the downstream vendor," Ruiz said. "Itronics buys our motherboards. We remove certain parts, such as capacitors," so when they get them, they have what they can use.

Disability Resources is currently working on becoming R2 certified, the recycling industry standard that guides how electronics are treated at their end of life.

"We're in the last stages of completing the final audit out of four audits," Ruiz said. "We understand we will be the first nonprofit in Northern Nevada to be R2 certified."

The certification not only dictates how Disability Resources handles e-waste, but also how its vendors handle it, including Itronics.

The disassembled motherboards are delivered to Itronics' factory in Stead. The cleantech pays the nonprofit the going rate for the e-waste, based on how much gold other companies can retrieve, explained Jeffrey Baclet, who provides Itronics' public relations information. But the e-waste sold to Itronics does not have to be shipped, so the cost for Disability Resources is reduced.

Itronics' founder and president, Dr. John Whitney has developed a process that separates the metals, leaving zero waste.

Whitney, who has a Ph.D. in mineral economics from Pennsylvania State University, began tackling pollutants in the late 1980s when officials in the region asked him to find a way to remove silver from used photograph-processing chemicals, which were being dumped in the Truckee River and killing fish.

The process he developed not only pulled the silver out of the chemical soup, but left a sludge that became the basis for Itronics' chief commercial product, GOLD'n GRO fertilizer. The silver bullion from the chemicals is also sold.

The same leftover photographic chemicals made into fertilizer has become the basis for several spinoff processes, including dealing with e-waste.

The e-waste coming from Disabilities Resources is ground then mixed with photographic waste and fed into a specially developed 2,000-degree Fahrenheit furnace.

But it takes more than heat, to separate the metals, Baclet said.

A proprietary process produces a type of glass that rejects all of the metals recovered from the e-waste, pushing them to the bottom, except for a small amount of silver and copper that remains in the copper-silver glass.

The glass can be sold or recycled. With enough of it, the glass could be manufactured into products such as kitchen tiles.

Also, when the e-waste is heated, chemicals in the circuit boards create a chemical reaction that produces significant heat energy, reducing energy costs of the melting process by about 40 to 50 percent.

"A typical 300 ounce (silver) bar left after the process, use to be waste and use to go into the river," Baclet said.

Instead of polluting waterways or filling dump sites with dangerous chemicals, all of the material fed into Itronics' furnace is converted to usable products plus energy.

And through its partnership with Disability Resources, obtaining the e-waste to convert is much easier.

You Can Help

Donations of used electronics can be brought to the New2U Computers store, 50 E. Greg St. Ste. 103. Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. They can also arrange free pickup for multiple electronics from business.

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