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Los Angeles business turns electronic waste into opportunity

Isidore Recycling co-founders Kabira Stokes and Aaron Malloy
Isidore Recycling co-founders Kabira Stokes and Aaron Malloy
Charles Castaldi/KPCC

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Last year in California about 200,000 tons of electronics – or e-waste – was dumped into landfills. E-waste encompasses pretty much anything that has a plug or battery: that outdated computer, the cell phone you just replaced, that printer that stopped working. But there’s gold to be found in e-waste, literally, and  jobs for the almost unemployable.

That’s what Kabira Stokes, co-founder of Isidore Recycling Company, explains while a truckload of e-waste is being unloaded behind her warehouse in Lincoln Heights on the edge of downtown L.A.

“When we get e-waste in, we bring it to this station here, we weigh itand then we sort it,” Stokes says. Isidore, which has been operating for slightly more than a year, looks like a veritable mausoleum to our plugged-in lifestyle.

Stokes, a Vassar graduate who doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of someone who deals in waste, says they first take anything that can be fixed and put it aside for resale. Everything else gets the electronic equivalent of an autopsy. 

“It's actually worth our time to take things apart," Stokes says. "It's called de-manufacturing.”

The de-manufacturing is handled by Shaye Elliot. He’s been at Isidore two months. He got the job shortly after getting out of prison, where he spent 18 of his 43 years, mostly for drug-related offenses. Beyond Stokes not fitting a waste management stereotype, Isidore also breaks the usual business mold because of its hiring practices: five of its seven employees have served time in prison for felonies.

Isidore’s co-founder and COO, Aaron Malloy, for example, was arrested at the age of 16 for a robbery and was ultimately sentenced to state prison.

“I did six years and ten months in numerous institutions from juvenile hall to county jail to California youth authority,” Malloy says. “I did time in a prison once known as 'gladiator school' and also Folsom State Prison.”

Nevertheless, Malloy, 35, managed to turn his life around. He now holds a degree in economics from UC Berkeley and an MBA from USC’s Marshall School of Business. He says working at Isidore fulfills two important requirements for him.

“I'm particularly interested in working in businesses that provide some sort of good to society,” he says. “And this is a business that provides good to society in many ways. The first is that it helps provide a cleaner environment. Second, it helps other young men and women overcome the same challenges that I faced.”

It turns out Stokes didn’t come upon this idea by mere chance. Before working for Eric Garcetti when he was Los Angeles City Council President, Stokes studied prison reentry policy and environmental governance at USC. Combining those two areas into a business seemed like a logical step.

“I am a social entrepreneur at heart,” she says. “It seems like these problems that we're presented with – specifically, a very broken correctional system and piling up amounts of e-waste – if we can try to tackle two of these problems at the same time, that’s a good idea.”

One problem is that so much e-waste ends up in landfills.

”It's a tragedy on many levels,” Stokes says.  “The first being that there's toxins in there, so that stuff starts leaking into our groundwater. There’s arsenic. That's just not where it belongs.” 

She points out that the materials in e-waste were taken from the ground using effort and energy to begin with.

“We’ve gone to the trouble of mining precious metals out of the earth and using petroleum to make plastic,” Stokes says. “And then we put them in these gadgets. Trying to throw them back into the earth is insane.”

Stokes says about 99 percent of the e-waste Isidore takes in can be sold on the commodity market once it’s sorted. Beyond the environmental advantages of recycling these materials, it actually is a way to make money. It turns out that there’s more gold in one ton of electronic waste than in 17 tons of gold ore. Stokes thinks that if she can increase the volume of e-waste coming through her center, Isidore should be making a profit in a year.

She says that the e-waste that isn’t dumped into landfills is shipped elsewhere, even overseas, where labor is cheaper and environmental regulations are more lax. She thinks processing this material in L.A. makes more sense because it creates more jobs here. 

For Elliot, his job at Isidore gives him a better shot at staying out of jail.

“Just actually doing something constructive and productive gives you some kind of dignity,” he says. “You’re actually earning your way in society and re-acclimating.”

Stokes says, currently, less than a fifth of the nation’s electronics are recycled. She says we’re simply throwing away a valuable asset, one that could bring more jobs for people like Elliot.

“What we're really trying to do here is recapture that value,” she says.  “Both in the electronics, but also in our workers.” 

And as long as electronics continue becoming obsolete as quickly as they do, it appears Isidore stands a good chance of having the raw material essential for its success.