Recycled computers help Durham students hone skills

Mar. 11, 2014 @ 09:39 PM

Jose Nunez, a senior at Hillside High School, grins wide when asked if friends and family ask him to repair computers with the skills he’s learned as an intern with Triangle Ecycling.

The local company provides STEM-based vocational education for the Durham Public Schools.

Nunez is one of nine students from across the school district currently enrolled in a hands-on internship program at the electronic recycling firm founded by CEO Larry Herst nearly three years ago.

“They call me all the time, and I make a little extra money,” said Nunez. After graduation, he hopes to take his high-tech skills to either N.C. A&T University in Greensboro, N.C. State in Raleigh or East Carolina in Greenville.

During the semester-long internship in the old Elkins Chrysler building downtown, students like Nunez learn to refurbish and recycle computers, but they also learn about environmental and humanitarian issues that surround “e-waste” and how to create sustainable business models.

They also get two credit hours that count toward graduation.

Herst, a trained lawyer and businessman, said he views Triangle Ecycling as a third career – “the give-back phase” of his life.

“My goal really is to get these kids either into college or in a situation where they really have a marketable skill, and we’ve been successful in doing that,” Herst said. “For me, it’s about giving back to the kids and supporting the public schools.”

Herst noted that Triangle Ecycling gives 10 percent of its profit to the DPS to support the school district’s Hub Farm, a 30-acre farm and forest where students and teachers grow and harvest healthy foods, bike hike and learn about the environment.

The firm makes its money by recycling old computers and by selling refurbished ones to individuals and on Ebay, which has become a main source of revenue for the company due to a drop in demand for the materials generated by recycling old computers.

“In the last year, the value of the commodities that come out of recycling computers, like plastic and metal and so forth, has dropped dramatically, so the revenue we get from recycling is minimal,” Herst said. “That’s just a service that we provide for the community and the environment.”

Herst said companies such as Measurement Inc., Square One Bank, Smith Breeden Associates, Inc., DPS and others are partners and contribute outdated computers for recycling or refurbishment.

Triangle Ecycling also has a donation program through which refurbished computers are passed down to local nonprofits that are focused on children and education.

Sixteen interns have graduated from the program in the two-plus years it has operated, and many of them have gone on to colleges such as N.C. Central University, N.C. State and N.C. A&T.

“We’ve got high achievers coming through here, and that was a surprise to me,” Herst said.

But even students who opt to go to work will find that the skills they learn during their internships are valuable, Herst said. 

“It really open doors in any kind of IT jobs because they know computers,” Herst said.

Shaheed Cure, also a senior at Hillside High, will move on to N.C. A&T after graduation, although he’s still hasn’t decided on a major.

Cure said the internship at Triangle Ecycling has been invaluable.

“It’s giving me more of a work environment experience rather than just learning about it in a classroom,” Cure said.

Herst would like to give that experience to even more kids, but needs more computer donations to make that happen.

“I would like to expand this,” Herst said. “The only limiting factor in terms of how many kids we can handle in this program is the number of computers we get in.”

In the last year, Herst has been able to hire help to go along with technician Oleg Neplioueve, a former Riverside High School student, who was the first to come on board.

More computer donations would allow him to expand the business by hiring more techs and buying an additional truck.

“I would love to create more jobs in Durham by growing the internship program,” Herst said. “If we go to more schools and get more kids excited about it, we could easily double or triple the internship program.”

He said the ideal would be to convince a large firm in the Research Triangle to sponsor the program with old computers.

“The beauty of this model is it doesn’t take money,” Herst said. “It takes used computers, and every business has used computers, just like every home does and every school does.”