Not With a Whimper

Chapter One:  The Deman Crew 

The light clink of a dropped drill bit onto a metal table, the slow whirring of an air machine winding down.  The sweep of a last dragged empty "gaylord" box on a dry concrete floor.  Swept four times that day, the floor seems dirty again, from the action of pounding square boxes of plastic, circuits, wires, and heavy glass bulbs called "cathode ray tubes".   Fourteen men's sweat scented the room that day.  Men from East Europe, from Mexico, from South America, and from Asia had worked in this room over the past decade.  Old men, who could remember the 1970's television sets were unaffordable, brand new.  Young men, seventeen, who had never held a pneumatic drill before.   It was a hard job, and not many people stayed in it.

"54-bit Driver Kit" IFIXIT
The first and most important lesson for the men at the demanufacturing tables, and the women in Sonora Mexico who copy them, is that you need your gloves.  They are irritating and clumsy, and when you must switch constantly between phillips screws, hex bits, metric and English, it's tempting to leave the gloves off, so you can keep up with the experienced demanufacturing workers.  It will save several seconds if you have bare fingers to pick out the next drill bit to match the new layer of screws beneath the brightly colored acrylic Imac case.   But the numbers will catch up with you.  You will eventually, after several dozen successful days of demanufacturing in naked efficiency, cut the hell out of your hand, and lose all the time you gained "working nekkid".  A safe workplace really is the most efficent workplace.

The second lesson is to take the gloves off at the end of the shift and to carefully examine the pile of screws swept at the bottom of the worktable.  The Hex 0.9 bit looks remarkably like scrap metal.  If you sweep up in a hurry, and it goes into the massive haystack of scrap screws, your time tomorrow will suffer.

The third lesson?  Watch out.  There is theft in the workplace.  Some new person, working at the entry level computer take-apart table beside you might lose his Hex 0.9 bit.  The fact he was unemployed in a state with 5% unemployment might mean he's an honest, hard working bootstrapper like you.  Or it might mean he's recently out of treatment for heroin or meth addiction.  Good Point Recycling hires a lot of people looking for a second chance.   But statistically, if they are working nekkid-hands, they are likely to lose their drill bits, and if for some reason they are taking their lunch break a minute after the bell (rather than, as usually, 3 minutes before), then he might have lost some drill bits yesterday, and he might have his eyes on your table.

The experienced disassembly staffer has learned lessons that apply in an auto repair shop or an assembly line.

During the typical day at Good Point Recycling, about 38,000 lbs of electronics came through the door of the Deman Warehouse.   Deman - or "de-manufacturing", or "disassembly" - was the title of the job at the heavy end of the Paretto Principle.
The "80-20 Rule", as the Paretto Estimate is typically called, says that 20 percent of material is worth 80 percent of the money.  Twenty percent of the clients are worth eighty percent of the gross income.  The men who worked in this room, today, handled the other.  Eighty percent of the used electronics which Good Point Recycling collects are torn down the their raw material.   Steel from computer casings, printers whose software didn't survive an operating system upgrade, the ten inch motherboards from Pentium 4s deemed "too slow" for the market, and 150 pound CRT televisions.  Lots of televisions.

900 pound bales of black plastic from "Wi Screens" were pushed against the wall.  Weee Screens were the nickname for the large LCD televisions which had days before been in front of a kid with a Nintendo control gadget in hand, the wrist guard unattached.  A simulated bowling alley, a launched virtual 16 pound ball, transformed into a flying 5 ounce Wii-mote which with grim reality flew from the hand of a thirteen year old boy, into the bottom right corner of the OLED 3D Smart Plasma television, cracking the display panel and leaving a small dent behind.   Thousands and thousands of damaged LCDs, or forgotten 17 inch white CRT monitors, or wooden TV-stereo consoles, come into Good Point Recycling every year.  And in this room, the Deman Room, they would be returned to their maker.

In peak weeks, during the summer, the payroll at Good Point was about $26,000.   That's a small business, by any definition, but in a small town like Middlebury Vermont, it paid for a lot of apartment rentals, a lot of diapers, and a lot of pizza.   The payroll was important to the county.   It came from outside the state, most recently from wire transfers from major corporations like Dell, Acer, Samsung, and Vizio.  Under the Stewardship Laws, most Americans in the Northeast states no longer pay $20 to drop off their used computer or television, the way they must pay for a refrigerator or air conditioner.

During the peak summer months, most of that payroll was generated here in this Deman Room, where men frequently worked 12 hour days, anxious for the time and a half overtime pay.  Some worked 7 days per week if they could get away with it.   If the doors were left unlocked in the morning, some men would come in, turn on the lights, punch the clock, and sneak in an extra hour of work at 5 AM.

Not everyone wants to work that way, between whirring pneumatic drills, crushing balers, a droning air compressor and clunks of heavy TVS from disassembled palletloads.  It's physical work, and surprisingly dirty work, considering almost everything is an electronic device which served its whole life in a livingroom, bedroom, or office.   Twenty years of dust sediment may clot the fan of a power supply.

High school drop outs, some of them in their 50s, come and try to do the job.  Some, like Peter, excel at it.  A bulky man, half deaf in one ear and half blind in one eye, Peter was raised and taught to work by a German baker as a teenager.   He had to be at the bakery at 4 AM back then, and if he wasn't he heard about it in a way he'd never want to hear again.   He went on to work for 19 years at Standard Register, a paper forms company in Middlebury which closed in 2008, laying off hundreds of blue and white collar workers.

Peter lifts the big plastic backs from the TVs, or the jellybean colored Imac acrylic pieces, over his shoulders, dropping them into a downstroke baler.  When he can no longer fit more pieces into the mouth of the baler, Peter closes the steel mesh door, and hits the large red power button.   Tons of force ram down slowly onto the material, creating a loud crushing and popping and bending of plastic.


Like competitors to a very big neighbor.

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