Technology

Homeboy Electronics Turns Junk into Jobs. Right to Repair Could Help.

A worker at Homeboy Industries prepares an iPad for repair. (Images in this post via Homeboy Industries)

Most electronics recyclers just put devices through a shredder, but at Homeboy Electronics Recyclers in Los Angeles, recycling isn’t enough: They’re on track to fix and refurbish more than 15,000 devices this year. Their team of repair gurus, mostly former gang-involved and previously incarcerated people, dig through hundreds of thousands of pounds of LA’s cast-off computers, studio monitors, and other gear to find stuff they can refurbish and resell. It’s good work, something hard to find for ex-prisoners. But it’s getting harder and harder to make this convenient cycle work. That’s why they’re fighting for Right to Repair. If they could get past software locks on refurbished computers and consistently get good manuals, they could be saving even more things from the trash.  

Homeboy Electronics Recycling started in 2011 as Isidore Electronics Recycling (named after the patron saint of computers), when Kabira Stokes wanted to start a business that would employ ex-prisoners. The formerly incarcerated often struggle to find work. In fact, 49% of former prisoners earn under $500 in their first year after release. Stokes modeled her business after an Indianapolis recycler, RecycleForce, that hired ex-prisoners to recycle electronics. She thought the business might work in LA—and it did well, becoming a home for both the discarded business computers of Downtown LA and the production equipment of Hollywood. 

Early on, Stokes knew she could get more out of the devices that were coming in the doors. Half the metals in a cell phone have recycling rates so low they can’t be reused at all. So, in 2013, she hired audiovisual repair expert Brian Fox to set up a repair program, training employees and opening the shop to members of the public who needed things fixed. Any still-useful things from the junk heap get fixed and listed for sale on their website.

Brian Fox, head of reuse at Homeboy Electronics Recycling, works on a broken record player.
Brian Fox, head of reuse at Homeboy Electronics Recycling, works on a broken record player.

The repair business boomed, and Stokes jumped on other opportunities. Their team secured contracts to recycle hospital equipment from around the country, and they became the machine behind HP’s closed-loop recycling program. In 2016, Isidore was acquired by Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang and anti-recidivism program activist Father Greg started in Boyle Heights.  

The first place a new Homeboy recruit starts is “demanufacturing,” where they prepare electronics for the shredder by removing batteries and taking out parts that are more valuable as a whole. Screwdriver in hand, employees learn what’s going on inside computers, spending six or eight months just tearing apart devices. From there, promising employees go out on the road, doing demanufacturing and data destruction on-site—at hospitals, for instance, several of which Homeboy serves nationwide. Finally, they’ll move into repair, testing memory and LCDs, using diagnostic software, and doing simple fixes on phones and tablets. 

A recycling facility is a better, lower-stakes place to learn about repair, Fox says. He used to run repair shops. “It was kind of ‘do or die,’” he explains. “You get someone’s personal cell phone in and, oh man, you can mess that up. But here, well, it’s just another cell phone.”

Repair is also a useful job skill, more than shredding or dismantling. And it’s better for the environment, too. But Fox says it’s also good for business: “The majority of our revenue comes from the reuse side of things, just trying to find stuff that we can test, repair, and get value back out of.”

But as Homeboy starts processing newer devices, Homeboy’s repair techs are running up against software locks that make it hard for them to get discarded electronics working again. That’s why Fox has been fighting, along with iFixit, to get Right to Repair legislation passed in the United States. Increasingly, repair documentation is unavailable even for devices that are just three or five years old. Fox has decades of experience and lots of friends in the repair world; with some help from his network, he can usually get things running again. But when he’s working from unofficial instructions from friends, he wonders if his repair manuals are accurate. And he knows that in some cases, even just sharing repair manuals can risk a lawsuit from the manufacturers.

In the ’90s, electronics manufacturers actually encouraged local repair businesses.

You’re never going to run into software locks on an old tape deck.

Fox remembers a time when electronics manufacturers actually encouraged local repair businesses. In the ‘90s, when he was fixing audio equipment in Chicago, the major manufacturers would invite repair professionals to attend workshops to learn how to fix the brand’s latest and greatest products. After the workshop, your shop would be certified, and  you could get documentation and parts directly from the manufacturers. That style of cradle-to-grave producer responsibility is rare today. Some companies do it: HP uses Homeboy to get as much value as possible out of the company’s recycling program. And there are still repair certifications, including iFixit’s own MasterTech smartphone repair certification.

More often, though, repairers like Fox have to reverse-engineer products. For parts, they cannibalize other devices. And when they run into software locks? Often the only legal option is to give up and send the device through the shredder, even if the device otherwise works fine. 

He understands that refurbishing gadgets can raise data privacy concerns, but Homeboy repair techs know all about that from their work recycling hospital computers. “It’s just absurd to think I’m dealing with government and hospital information, and yet somehow Apple thinks that I’m not capable of dealing with one person from Beverly Hills’ information,” Fox laughs.

Electronics companies often fight repair legislation by citing privacy concerns. But as the Federal Trade Commission just concluded in a report, “There is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” Right to Repair bills have now been introduced in 32 of 50 U.S. states, and a national bill has just been introduced in Congress. Right to Repair polls well among voters, but for a bill to become law, it has to overcome the stifling effects of corporate lobbyists. 

To join the fight in your area, check out Repair.org. Or, if you’re a repair guru in Los Angeles, you might get in touch with Homeboy: Brian Fox is stepping back from his full-time role as head of the reuse department, so he can spend more time focusing on special projects for Homeboy as well as his electronic waste art initiative, Media Pollution. They’re looking for someone to help them fight the good fight, finding as much value as possible in broken things.

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