COMMERCE, Calif. — For many years, Jeanette Felix was focused on putting the pieces of her life back together.
“I was in a gang, I was an addict, I went to prison and I repeated that quite often,” said Felix, now 43.
But things began to turn around for the Los Angeles native when she got involved with Homeboy Industries, an organization that supports former gang members and formerly incarcerated people by helping them find jobs and adjust to life outside of the carceral system.
Felix began working for Homeboy Industries at their primary location in downtown LA, but just over a year ago, she got a job at a different division working in technology and IT. Now, she works at Homeboy Electronics Recycling, one of the nine social enterprises operated by Homeboy Industries.
The recycling center collects electronic waste, or e-waste, and either disposes or repurposes electronics for continued use.
“I’m learning all kind of skills,” Felix said. “I never knew how a computer was put together. I learned that…we dissect the computer.”
At Homeboy Electronics Recycling, which was acquired by Homeboy in 2016, graduates of its programs can work, train and grow their skills both on the recycling side and in technology. Felix tests computers that are brought in from individual donors or from companies who are disposing of them because they’re upgrading their technology. Computers that are still functioning are refurbished and then either resold or donated.
Felix says working at the recycling center has been an eye-opening experience when it comes to waste.
“I go through the computers, and it’s like, this is useable,” she said.
Electronic waste is an increasing worldwide concern. According to the United Nations Global E-Waste Monitor from 2020, over 53 million metric tons of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2019. The amount of e-waste has been building at a rapid rate as technological upgrades continue at an equally fast pace.
The U.N. study found that just 17.4% of the e-waste from 2019 was recycled. Most electronic waste ends up in landfills, creating hazardous environments due to the many metals and chemicals used in the electronics.
Sanjay Mohanty, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UCLA, studies the impact climate change and waste has on water quality.
"When we think about most of our electronic waste, the smallest item, like a cell phone or computer chips, they use lots of toxic metals like lead, arsenic, cadmiums and hexavalent and chromium," he said. "These metals are very toxic so it’s very important to handle the waste properly."
Mohanty's lab is working to find solutions to the waste problem by developing safe ways to dispose and extract toxins, so that it becomes reusable. Mohanty says reusing material is an important next step when it comes to conservation and waste management.
"Landfill was the main way of managing waste fifty years ago," he said. "We can’t continue doing that because now we have more waste and we don’t have that much space. So now, what’s the next best way to manage the waste? It’s to prevent waste from ending up in landfills."
And that’s the goal at Homeboy Electronics, keeping waste out of landfills. Each piece of a computer, phone, printer, charger or other electronic item is taken apart, properly recycled and brought back into use.
Felix noted that working with computers at the recycling center has made her reflect on her own life — and the formidable progress she has made.
"I had to get brought back to society," she said. "It’s like the computers. It can sit on a counter for years until you polish it up and really understand it and put use to it…As you’re putting something together, you’re putting yourself back together too."