It Was 20 Years Ago Today: Good Point Recycling's Eco-Entrepreneurism

Just ran across this photo from 15 years ago (just before we bought the Nissan forklift), at the warehouse across from Agway on Exchange St. The monitors were selling for $7 apiece back then.  Pretty much all we did was to do pickups, pull out the PCs and CRT monitors we could reuse, and load everything mixed back onto a trailer.

5 years earlier, I had announced my resignation at Massachusetts DEP to follow my wife to Middlebury, Vermont, where I'd taken a job running a thrift store while doing consulting work for EPA, MA DEP, New Deal Software, etc.

It was 20 years ago that I took a big chance and left my corner office at One Winter Street in Boston, having successfully instituted the USA's first waste disposal ban on CRT devices in Massachusetts. The consulting work I did for MA DEP and EPA was published in September 2000, about a year after I turned it in. Titled Electronics Re-Use and Recycling Infrastructure Development in Massachusetts, it eventually became the business plan for Good Point Recycling. 

The report was based on interviews with 48 electronic recycling professionals, 176 TV repair shops, 4 white goods (fridges) appliance collectors, 10 thrift shop operations (Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc), 2 retailers, 20 computer monitor repair shops, 7 Original Equipment Manufacturer reps (not credited or cited), and 32 used electronic equipment exporters.

Thanks to the distribution of that report, I was invited in 2002 to speak to the Guangdong Electric Appliance Research Institute in Guangzhou, China (along with report collaborator Lynn Rubenstein, still Exec Director at  The Chinese conference organizers could not offer to pay my way (only my hotel and meals, which were fabulous), but I negotiated to stay an extra week, during which time my translators would take me on tours of Chinese recycling facilities, aluminum founderies, copper recyclers, and used computer reuse markets.  The most influential trip was to Foshan.

I'd return again to China in 2004 to follow up with CRT refurbishing factories that I'd signed deals with after my 2002 trip.  I had verified their purchase orders made sense with (Silicon Sam Goldwasser's repair manual wiki project, which I'd discovered on during the 1999 MA DEP JTR research), and learned that the original factories that had originally assembled the computer CRT monitors above were buying them back.

The largest factory had 1500 employees, and was the size of a small airport. They ran three shifts per day, seven days per week, re-manufacturing the SVGA desktop CRT monitors into either new monitors, new TVs, or a popular hybrid (both SVGA jack and TV tuner, for sale in cities like Cairo and Mumbai, where many households were not able to afford both).

The engineers explained that the CRTs were good for 20-25 years before the electronic cathode ray gun wore out, and that Americans and Japanese and Europeans were typically abandoning them after only 4 years of use. That represented another 16-21 years of use for each CRT.  It saved all of the environmental cost of mining, refining, minting and manufacturing a new CRT, and made a much more affordable display for emerging markets.

In 2003 and 2004, I also tried to befriend Jim Puckett and Sarah Westervelt at Basel Action Network, in an attempt to get them to show more nuance in their depiction of China's Tech Sector and Recycling Sector.  They introduced me to Craig Lorch of Total Reclaim.  I took Lin King (Recycling Director at University of California, Berkeley - then at UCDavis) and Craig Lorch on the next trip to China, so that people could witness that these were not "primitive recycling" operators buying the used CRT monitors, hoping that they would help dissuade California and BAN from instituting the "destruction" of reuseable CRT monitors collected in California's SB20 program (California had followed my lead at MA DEP and instituted their own CRT waste ban and set up the state's own CRT recycling infrastructure).

I also learned between 1999 and 2004 that other Chinese engineer / entrepreneurs were doing the same "repurposing" of other electronic components.  Chinese were examining individual computer circuit boards to harvest and resell microchips, which might wind up in children's toys or lower end electronics. That was clear from the price the Chinese were paying for the circuit boards, but I refrained from selling those to China out of fear of the images of Chinese workers holding the boards over flames (this was to loosen the solder to remove the chip, not to burn the board, but it was still too difficult to explain to our clients).  

The reuse of ink cartridges and "single use" / disposable film cameras were other examples of amazing reuse markets in Guangdong province.  Those reuse operations were so successful that they angered the "Anti Gray Market Alliance", USA based manufacturers who didn't like competing with their own refurbished secondhand repackaged product.

This blog was kicked off in 2006, but didn't get really busy until 2008, when I had been interviewed by CBS 60 Minutes (on background).  I was unsuccessful in getting Scott Pelley and the CBS Team to portray the Chinese remanufacturing business as something other than "primitive".

Anyway, this is all just recap of previous blogs.  Because of all of the legal work involved in the Closed Loop Recycling (CLRR) case, the court cases for Brian Brundage, Craig Lorch and Jeff Zirkle, etc., I've been hesitant to publish a number of blogs I've authored this year (one, which laid out a complete timeline for the CLRR CRT recycling business, I was implored to pull by some attorneys until we get settlement with Ohio EPA).

Anyway, it was the reuse side of the business that paid for most of the principle basis of the factory here at 227 Pond Lane, which we grew to occupy in 2009 after buying it during the crash of 2008 (signed the documents in October, 2008, two weeks before the bottom fell out of the market).

The photo from 2004, at the top of this blog post, shows the activity we engaged in at the new plant.  Today, the white desktop VGA CRT monitors are ironically worth more than the SVGA - they are sold as collectors items on Ebay.  If only I had been able to speculatively accumulate them for the past 20 years, I'd be a millionaire.  Heavy IBM VGA 8XXX series monitors, like the one below, used to be our biggest expense (the Chinese factories would not accept them for refurbishing).  You don't see any of these in the export stack photo up top.  But if I find one today, I can sell it as a retro vintage item on ebay for about $200.

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