Man of many parts

Former Big Issue North vendor John Hastings has set up a business that makes recycled computers available to the community at low prices. And he’s recycling his own expertise as well

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A former Big Issue North vendor has launched an IT recycling social enterprise in Bolton that aims to stop old computers ending up in landfill sites by reconditioning them and reselling them at a cut price.

“I’d been taking electronics apart since I was a kid. The first computer I took apart was a ZX Spectrum.”

John Hastings, 51, started selling the magazine in and around Manchester in 2003. Up until that point he’d been homeless for several years, was battling alcohol addiction and had had various run-ins with the police, so the decision to start selling was an attempt to get his life back on track.

“My dad was a salesperson,” says Scarborough-born Hastings. “I grew up watching and helping him sell all kinds of things, from carpet cleaners to umbrella hats.”

Now sitting in the Recycle IT office in the basement of Bolton’s Social Enterprise Centre, Hastings says that decision to sell Big Issue North changed his life for the better and led him to where he is now. But it hasn’t been an easy couple of decades and this isn’t the first time Hastings has been involved in the computer recycling business.

He loved selling the magazine, particularly when he got a permanent pitch in Withington, where he sold for three years, but eventually he decided he wanted to move on into different employment. It was through a sister company of Big Issue North, Big Life Employment (BLE), that Hastings first got involved with recycling computers. BLE was looking to help vendors into other kinds of employment and he felt ready to make the leap.

“They asked me what I was interested in doing and I said computers. I’d been taking electronics apart since I was a kid. The first computer I took apart was a ZX Spectrum. They used to make so much noise and you couldn’t shut them up. I took a screwdriver and opened it up and found out what was making the noise and snipped the wire. I’ve loved playing
with electronics ever since.”

Hastings and two others were introduced to a computer recycling service based in Hulme. They stayed with the project for about a year and when the funding ran out, BLE offered them the chance take on the business themselves.

From a modest start the business grew and won both national contracts and awards for its work.

“We probably collected about 5,000 computers and passed back about 2,000 into the community, with others going abroad to developing countries,” says Hastings.

Although they had the contracts, what they didn’t have was the knowledge of how to keep the business running.

“We didn’t have a business plan, governance, a board of directors, a cashflow forecast. We didn’t even create a payroll for ourselves. We were just winging it,” admits Hastings. “We got
to a breaking point where we weren’t going anywhere, and we were looking to each other for why that was. We didn’t look after ourselves and it was mismanaged because we didn’t know what we were doing.”

The business “imploded” in 2011, which was hard on Hastings, who by that time had a wife and five stepchildren to support. He says he spent a couple of years “sulking” about what had happened but then a friend and mentor of his suggested he re-train as a support worker for people with learning disabilities.

At the time Hastings had assumed his options for further work were limited. “Because of my past I didn’t have a great image of myself,” he says. Since being a teenager, he’d had trouble with the police and had racked up 29 convictions and seven custodial sentences.

John Hastings, 51

“I was a rubbish thief,” he laughs. “I kept getting caught.” His life of crime, which ended in 2000, was “a result of bad choices” and driven in part by his alcohol addiction.

But despite his past Hastings managed to become a support worker and loved the job. Then Covid hit. Hastings spent 2020 shielding because he has COPD, but earlier this year decided to return to work. Unfortunately, there’d been a change of management while he’d been on furlough and a clash with a senior staff member led to the job coming to an end.

“I was gutted,” he says as he was once again faced with deciding what to do next. It was his wife who suggested restarting Recycle IT, and the growth of community interest companies during the pandemic (there were around 6,800 registered last financial year) inspired him to give it some serious thought.

With the help of some friends and a coach at his local job centre, he began putting in funding applications and assembled a team of people who could help him start the business up while avoiding the mistakes that were made the first time around.

Recycle IT takes used computers primarily from businesses looking to get rid of old equipment. Its staff check to see if the computers are viable to be resold, clean them up and clear the hard drives of data. The machines that can’t be reused are broken up for parts or given to local colleges and other organisations for “upcycling”, in art projects, for example. Nothing collected goes to landfill.

The aim is to sell whatever they can at half the market value to people in the local community who would otherwise struggle to access IT equipment.

Hastings has clearly come a long way since his days selling the magazine. He sits in the basement office surrounded by various machines, some running, some in pieces, and is enthusiastic about the social value and environmental impact that Recycle IT offers. He’s determined to make the social enterprise a success and has a detailed plan about how to develop and grow the business over the next three years, which includes eventually offering IT training and pop-up IT cafés in community spaces. “I’m very optimistic about the future,” he says.

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