A 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Middlebury’s industrial zone looks like a post-apocalyptic scene from WALL-E. Photocopy machines, computers, TV sets, stereos and radios are heaped into piles on both sides of an aisle that stretches to an area where most will be “demanufactured.” That is, their innards will be sorted into 20 bins according to the types of materials from which the parts were made.
This is the Good Point Recycling plant — where many Vermonters’ electronic gadgets go after they’ve died.
The 6-year-old operation collects digital discards from transfer stations around the state as well as from solid-waste dumps in other parts of New England. Three tractor-trailers stuffed with electronic debris arrive at the facility each week, where they’re picked over by a 20-person workforce. Salvageable machines are refurbished for reuse — to be donated to nonprofits or sold on eBay or some other channel. The rest of the tonnage gets reduced to recyclable components that will be shipped to re-processors in the United States or abroad. Some of the gold extracted from computers, for example, is transformed into wedding rings.
The largest plant of its kind in Vermont is overseen by Robin Ingenthron, a gnome-like figure who comes across as equal parts geek, alchemist and visionary entrepreneur. Ingenthron established Good Point and its parent company, American Retroworks, in Middlebury because his wife, Armelle Crouzieres-Ingenthron, got a job at the college teaching French. He’s originally from Arkansas, where, as a teen in the ’70s, he “smoked pot, threw the I Ching and thought about becoming a Buddhist monk.”
Ingenthron attributes his involvement in electronics recycling to “karma.” That, and his involvement with the student-run recycling program at Carleton College in Minnesota. He says he realized there that recycling could be a profitable business, not just an exercise in do-goodery.
Ingenthron went on to get an MBA degree from Boston University. He paid for it by driving a recycling truck for a local solid-waste firm. He also did a stint with the Peace Corps in Cameroon. That experience made him aware, he says, that ambitious young Africans were limited to three career options: farming, which would take them down a “dead end”; going to work for a thoroughly corrupt government, which would be “the equivalent of joining the Mafia”; or laboring for pennies an hour in a factory making consumer goods for Westerners.
But based on what he knew about recycling, Ingenthron imagined there could be a fourth possibility: repairing used electronic equipment for reuse in Cameroon. That would be not only an environmentally positive endeavor, he reasoned; it would help bridge the digital divide between widget-besotted rich countries and those short on information-age tools.
Good Point Recycling thus ships electronic recyclables to Mexico, Malaysia and other developing countries. In Fronteras, a depressed mining town not far from Mexico’s border with Arizona, Good Point has partnered with a cooperative of middle-aged women who have become known as Las Chicas Bravas — loosely translated, The Tough Babes. They repair and recycle machines shipped from Vermont or collected locally and in Arizona. Some of the women have traveled to Middlebury for on-the-job training. One of them, Maria Dolores Cota, said in an interview last month on National Public Radio’s “Living on Earth” that the Good Point crew “didn’t view us as outsiders. They treated us like equals. There was no age discrimination. It was very different from Mexico.”
No one would suggest that Good Point is a socially irresponsible initiative. But shipping used electronics from the United States to the developing world can be exactly that. The practice is opposed in many cases by a Seattle-based activist group known as Basel Action Network. Taking its name from the 1992 Basel Convention that was designed to regulate exports of electronic castoffs to poor countries, BAN argues that dead TV sets shipped to countries such as Nigeria, China and India often wind up poisoning local people who work on them. Lead is present at dangerous levels in TVs’ cathode-ray tubes, which are prohibited by law from being dumped in landfills in many parts of the U.S. — though not in Vermont. The dumping or burning of leftover cathode ray tubes and other forms of e-garbage meanwhile fouls the air, soil and groundwater in poor countries, BAN says.
The Basel Convention has been signed by 169 nations. The United States is not among them.
For its part, the federal government does little to regulate exports of broken-down electronic goods. It was muckraking on the part of BAN that led the federal Environmental Protection Administration to launch an investigation last month of an Oklahoma-based business called EarthEcycle that, activists charge, shipped hazardous electronic wastes to South Africa and Hong Kong in violation of notification requirements.
BAN contends that the electronics recycling scene in the United States includes several such bad actors. And Ingenthron agrees.
But he maintains that banning all exports of discarded electronic goods “makes about as much sense as boycotting coffee” because some plantations engage in exploitative labor practices. “If we export everything, we’re dumping toxics,” he says. “If we export nothing, we’re destroying usable equipment that could benefit developing countries.” Good Point thus seeks what its boss sees as a desirable balance: making sure that electronic scraps are in compliance with the Basel Convention before they’re shipped to Las Chicas Bravas or some other conscientious recycling facility outside the U.S.
In terms of jobs, “the worst recycling is better than the best mining,” Ingenthron argues. Recycling one ton of metals creates 100 times more jobs than mining the same amount of materials does, he says.
Electronics recycling should also be seen as especially beneficial environmentally because it reduces reliance on mining, which Ingenthron terms “the worst evil out there.” Metal mining accounts for 45 percent of all toxins emitted by U.S. industries, he says, citing the Bush administration’s EPA as the source of that statistic.
A BAN staff member says her organization lacks specific information about Good Point and thus cannot comment on its claims of sound stewardship. And Charity Carbine, an environmental health advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says she, too, can offer no definitive assessment of Good Point’s operations because “we haven’t done an audit of their facilities.” Carbine does describe Good Point as “a really nice outfit, as far as I can tell.”
Workers at the Middlebury plant face no danger of contamination with toxins such as barium, lead and mercury as they disassemble TV sets and other electronics, Ingenthron says. Face masks are a voluntary accoutrement at Good Point, but he notes that federal occupational safety officials recently inspected the warehouse and “gave us a clean bill.”
Some of Good Point’s workers are enrolled in an Addison County job-training program that helps developmentally or otherwise disabled individuals gain paid employment. Roy Buzzell, 46, is one of those workers. He says he’s held a number of positions at Good Point, moving up a task ladder to higher skills and greater responsibilities. “It’s a good place to work,” Buzzell says. “There’s lots of different kinds of people here, and we all get treated OK.”
An experienced worker at Good Point can take apart about 45 computers a day, says Colin Davis, a Middlebury College grad from South Dakota who manages the plant. In all, he estimates, the facility handled 4.5 million pounds of used electronics last year, much of it analog TV sets discarded due to the transition to digital transmissions. Good Point’s revenues fell about 6 percent last year as the global recession choked off many markets for recyclables, Davis adds. That may not seem like a vast differential, but the electronics recycling business operates on thin margins, he points out.
Markets are beginning to “bounce back,” Davis adds. And as a global economic recovery quickens, he predicts there will be plenty of opportunities for Good Point.
VPIRG is meanwhile promoting legislation in Vermont intended to help safeguard the environment locally and globally as more and more electronic goods make their way into landfills. The legislation, which passed the Senate last session, would prohibit dumping of electronic wastes in Vermont, require electronic products manufacturers to facilitate recycling programs, and regulate exports. “It has a good chance of becoming law,” VPIRG’s Carbine says. “We’re coming back next year to try to get it through the House.”