Tech Recycler Generates Cash From Trashed Smartphones

Doing good is good for business—but only if you do it well and in terms that matter to your customers.

urbanminingYou may have passion for your purpose but your customers are focused on their business.

With a state of the art electronics recycling facility and a proprietary on-site Innovation Lab, Jacksonville-based Urban Mining Public Benefit Corporation’s mission is to continually minimize the impact of human progress on the earth’s natural resources. But its clients are mainly concerned with the company’s ability to properly dispose of IT assets like computers, smartphones and tablets.

“In the end it’s a business,” CEO Steven Kaufman said. “You need to articulate what you do in a way that matters to your customers.

“Talking to them about the fact that the byproduct of us approaching the business this way significantly reduces environmental, reputational and data risk makes sense to them.”

Customers want assurance that the assets they pay Urban Mining to recycle do not end up in landfills or retain sensitive information that was supposed to be destroyed. Clients can audit the company’s operations at any time, even unannounced, to confirm that it is recycling materials as promised, Kaufman said.

Urban Mining’s services cover the full range of IT asset management and disposition; Department of Defense (DOD) compliant data destruction, audited tagging and tracking, resale of assets with marketable value and the complete tear-down of old electronics resulting in a net zero impact on landfills. Clients include Florida Blue, Borland-Groover Clinic, the U.S. Secret Service-Jacksonville, Jacksonville Bank and Convergys.

In addition to charging clients to dispose of their IT assets, Urban Mining sells refurbished equipment and offers repair services that allow electronics to last longer.

“We’re in this business to make money so the economics have to work, but the key to that success is that the passion has to be real,” Kaufman said. “At the highest level, we’re saving the world. That’s what drives us.”

Clients do not necessarily hire Urban Mining with that same goal, but they do see the benefits.The company also provides clients with a custom Urban Mining Impact Report that measures their social and environmental contributions in metrics like toxicity diverted, strategic metals recovered, greenhouse gasses reduced and jobs created through their IT asset recycling.

Only 12.5 percent of the 20 million to 50 million metric tons of e-waste disposed of globally each year is recycled, according to Urban Mining. Companies will often claim that they are recycling e-waste when they really are not, Kaufman said.

“They can do almost anything they want in the state of Florida. A lot are telling clients one thing and doing it another way,” Kaufman said.

A hospital gave a company dozens of computers with sensitive information to dispose of only to have them found at a scrap yard, Kaufman said. If their IT assets are not recycled correctly, companies risk hurting the environment, damaging their reputations and incurring costly penalties associated with compromised data and environmental pollution.

Urban Mining’s commitment to higher standards is evident in its attainment of the e-Stewards certification, which is an accredited, third-party audited certification program for electronics recyclers, refurbishers and asset managers. Started by the Basel Action Network (BAN) in 2003 in response to a need for stricter, cleaner standards governing e-waste recycling, the e-Stewards Initiative states that no hazardous, illegal e-waste will be exported to developing nations, be disposed into landfills or recycled using forced or child labor, according to the e-Stewards website.

IMG_4859 (1)Urban Mining also converted to a public benefits corporation in November 2014, becoming one of the first companies to do so under changes to Florida law that allowed business to incorporate as such.

As a public benefits corporation, Urban Mining’s managers, including Kaufman, Schiller and founder Juan Carlos Villatoro, are legally obligated to support the company’s social and environmental commitments as well as to fulfill their fiduciary duties.

“It was one of our ways to demonstrate to Juan Carlos as business partners that our commitment was real and for demonstrating our higher standards than for other companies out there,” Kaufman said.

Urban Mining is committed to the community as well. It has delivered solar-powered computer labs, refurbished electronics and computing classes to underdeveloped communities in the Dominican Republic through its corporate social responsibility program (CSR) since 2010. It also proactively recruits, trains and inspires women and minorities to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine, to support its employees and to help Northeast Florida become a regional STEM2 Hub.

Kaufman credits Villatoro for embedding such strong values within Urban Mining’s culture. “It’s driven by his vision and his inspiration. On more than one occasion, people have said, ‘I want do business with you Steve. I want to help Juan Carlos.’”

While Kaufman oversees day-to-day business operations, Villatoro focuses on identifying new markets and corporate partners as well as developing and improving techniques for repurposing electronic and plastic waste.

“Electronics recycling hasn’t changed in 20 years,” Kaufman said. “People talk about the environment because it’s the proper thing to do today but have applied no innovation to solving the problem. We do it differently.”


Recycling Reimagined

Black smoke billowed above the aluminum foundry where young Juan Carlos Villatoro worked for his father in El Salvador.

The younger Villatoro loved making electrical conduit components from the melted aluminum, but he disdained the pollution caused by a heating process fueled by engine oil.

Though he aspired to be an engineer, Villatoro wanted to do so without hurting the environment. After serving in the U.S. Navy as a damage controlman responsible for training sailors in operating and maintaining chemical, biological and radiological detection systems, in 2006 he enrolled at the University of North Florida, where he would learn the science and policies behind electronics recycling.

“I had an understanding of how I could change an industry from a local, state or federal scale,” Villatoro said. With that knowledge, he founded Urban Mining in 2009 with the goal of establishing the Jacksonville-based electronics recycler as a leader in ethical recycling practices that could help create a more sustainable world for future generations.

Villatoro also knew that ideas and passion would not be enough, so he searched for investors who would share his vision. He declined funding offers from businesses and individuals who put profits first, before finding compatibility and capital in local business leaders Steven Kaufman and Rob Schiller more than two years ago.

“They said, ‘Let’s focus more on producing a great company and in the same time we’ll make lots of money,’” Villatoro said.

Previously a founder, chief executive and partner in several businesses, including Harbor View Advisors, Kaufman has since become Urban Mining’s CEO. Schiller, executive vice chairman of Black Diamond, Inc. and formerly President of Armor Holdings, is actively involved in Urban Mining as well.

“We were both very inspired by Juan Carlos’s passion for making a difference and to not just be about the rhetoric around electronics recycling,” Kaufman said. “It’s really living what you preach that makes the conversations that we have with prospective customers and existing clients very genuine.”

Urban Mining helps businesses, governments, schools and community organizations to collect, recycle and refurbish tons of e-waste every year. As the region’s only e-Stewards Certified Electronics Recycler, Urban Mining uses its environmentally friendly, proprietary technology to divert hazardous toxins and plastics from landfills and reduce the need for mining natural resources like gold, silver and other rare earth minerals.

Villatoro first saw the opportunity to improve electronics recycling in the smoke that hung above his father’s factory in El Salvador decades ago. Now, he has the knowledge, resources and commitment to clear the air.

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