Defending the 20 Percent: LET'S INTEGRATE RECYCLING

American Retroworks Inc. is a USA corporation based in Middlebury, Vermont. Established as a consulting company in 2001, ARI developed one of the first electronics take back and recycling ventures in the USA (Good Point Recycling), which now employs 30 staff. ARI has recycled, or diverted for reuse, over 20M kilos of “e-waste” over the decade plus we have collected in New England.  We create blue collar jobs in Addison County, we train our staff to meet new opportunities, and almost all of the $40M we have brought into the county came not just from out of state, but from big manufacturing companies - OEMs, steel and copper smelters, plastics molders - in other countries.

This blog is about the 20%.  Of people, partners, and product. 

The founder of American Retroworks Inc. and Good Point Recycling is a former regulator and Peace Corps volunteer who considers the export for reuse to be one of the most important social and environmental activities the company engages in.

We don't have to choose between USA jobs and exports (Obvious to many).

American Retroworks does domestically (or in Europe or North America) scrap about 80% of the material we receive.  We just find it a bizarre thing to boast about. Anyone can achieve 80% non-reuse.  In fact, we believe it's impossible to find anyone in the emerging market willing to accept or import 80% of what Americans throw away unless it is processed (BAN's 80% claim referenced clean plastic, aluminum, copper, steel, reuse exports, etc).  "We don't export 80% e-waste" - It's a rather modest claim, like "zero poison in our burgers" at a local restaurant.

What distinguishes our company are the people we defend - Americans and foreigners alike.  Yes, we proudly employ women as truck drivers, executives, disassembly - they are integrated in every phase of our company. Yes, we employ "differently abled" staff through ADA and other programs.  We hold collection events as fundraisers for Special Olympics, and have veterans of those Olympics working those events as our staff.  We hired older staff - our top paid employee had been in the plastics molding industry for over 3 decades when his factory in Vermont closed.  We sent him for 6 weeks of paid training in CDL school, and today he is VP of all our Trucking and Logistics, supervising a half dozen staff and a fleet of dozens of trailers, tractors, straight trucks, and drivers.

The idea that none of the Vermont socially responsible work matters, because we defend trade with emerging markets, is kinda sick.

If I write primarily about trade with Africa, Asia, and Latin America, it is not because we are exporting our jobs there.  Our jobs in Vermont depend in significant part on our relationships with the men and women who manage 20% of our material, creating jobs in poorer countries, reusing material in the "good enough market".  

We refuse to impugn them.  And we believe in standing up to the bullies who do.

We passionately defend our exports to emerging market Tech Sectors in a “fair trade” paradigm.  The best and brightest should not be blacklisted. Electronics repair and refurbishing has been a “gateway” for entrepreneurs in the Tech Sector. In fact, the “tinkerer’s blessing” has been the most important asset in developing countries. The value added by reuse and repair is exponentially higher than dumping or recycling. It creates upwardly mobile jobs for youth educated in schematics and electric or electronic sciences.

It is vital, in our opinion, to distinguish these Tech Sector (import for reuse and repair) jobs from so-called informal recycling practices. The former is typically constituted by educated valedictorians, the latter by Africa’s orphans and primary school drop outs. By treating both activities as “illegal import of waste”, Western do-gooders blur engage in collateral damage. Although unintentional, the portrayal of Tech Sector used goods imports has led to a virtual boycott of Africa’s Tech Sector, and has even veered into racial profiling. African importers say they find it difficult to purchase laptops, cell phones, computers and televisions their nations need (and can afford), and are increasingly driven into “back alleys” and “black markets” to meet their market’s demand. That demand represents what World Bank consultants call the “critical mass of users”. Without affordable, value added electronics, there would be no consumers to pay for cell phone towers, TV stations, internet cable, or satellites.

In order to increase the profile of Tech Sector careers, American Retroworks has adapted 4 overseas “fair trade” partners over the past 15 years. In addition to the trading relationship and quality control and certification of legal export, American Retroworks uses the relationship to positively portray the rewards of education and technical training in the consuming countries and the OECD supplier market. By highlighting Africa’s Best and Brightest, its “Geeks of Color”, our trade signals a pride in the relationship that has been sadly missing. We believe this sends strong incentives to youth in these countries to “stay in school” and to emulate tech sector cousins in the way doctors, teachers, and football players are emulated.

Listed below are five projects I am proud of (Egypt, Malaysia, Mexico, Ghana, and Angola).  None of them ever constituted even 20% of the material we handled that year, much less 80% of it.  But they were all victims of racist, nationalist, ignorant portrayals of the Export Market in "e-waste".  I am going to try to take the time to write about each chapter of our business in a personal way, and hopefully get readers to see each and every one of these "overseas" or "others" as ingenious people of fine character whose purchases of carefully selected product resulted in more value, and more jobs, in Vermont.  

Our partnerships in Egypt, Malaysia, Mexico, and Ghana made our hiring of women, our training of older white men, our translation, our cross training, our employement of ADA and special olympics staff, our new hires and our re-hires, possible.  You can't have a light without a dark to put it in, and you can't  have 80% of our staff without the 20% of non-staff we partner with.

I'll try to provide a link to each of these partnerships in a future blog (long time readers will recognize them).

2003-2009 Medi-Com Egypt XX sea containers, visits, jobs, shops

2005-2011 Net Peripheral Malaysia, XXX containerloads, visits, jobs, recycling results

2007-present Retroworks de Mexico, rural womens cooperativa, xx loads, visits, jobs, results

2012-present Chendiba Enterprises, Ghana, X containers, visits, jobs, recycling plans

2018? Angola?

Each of the partners has his/her own story.  That story is not defined by exoticism or "primitive halloween rice paddy shantytown" descriptions by fundraising NGOs.  When our eyes "adjust to the dark" we will recognize that while Joseph "Hurricane" Benson and Awal Muhammed are both black men, that's about the full extent of the comparison or overlap.  White people drawing salaries to post Awal's photo in the 2015 UNEP report to describe the arrest and imprisonment of Benson is absolutely cringeworthy.  Someday the EU and UNEP will thank me for interrupting the "friendly fire".

Snuffy Smith does not define me.  Your nation's most humiliating photos do not define you.  Tire burning youth do not define Hamdy, Su Fung, Mariano, or Wahab. That's a start.  Let's integrate.

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