American Retroworks Inc. is a Delaware c-Corporation established in the spring of 2001. In the beginning, ARI was primarily a consulting venture, advising Electronicycle, Chinese Electric Appliance Institute, EPA, Massachusetts DEP, NRC and others on used electronics recycling. Along the way, Robin Ingenthron bought a used off lease Penske truck in Memphis, Tennessee, using a $12k home equity loan, and started collecting and consolidating used PCs and televisions from solid waste districts in Vermont and New Hampshire.
As of 2010, 100% of shares are owned by Robin Ingenthron of Middlebury, Vermont. The largest asset of American Retroworks Inc. is the Good Point Recycling factory in Vermont, which now collects and processes about 5 million pounds per year of used and surplus computers, printers, televisions, audio and other equipment, as well as cardboard, textiles, lamps, books, film plastics, etc. In 2008, the company bought a 50,000 s.f. facility. While ARI still does some consulting, running Good Point Recycling is a full time job. The facility in Middlebury Vermont is also a job training program for several counseling services, recognizing people for what they can do, not for what they cannot do, and helping them to learn skills which lead away from poverty.
A maquila business in Fronteras, Mexico, named Retroworks de Mexico, is owned by a women's collective, and the two ventures partner in Arizona as a Mexico-USA maquila, American Retroworks West as a 50-50% partnership. Retroworks de Mexico has full right of first refusal on all reuse equipment from ARI, and ARI manages end markets for all recycled material which is not repaired after RDM is finished processing it. As covered by NPR and PBS, the USA-Mexico partnership was established as a model for "fair trade" and constructive recycling participation in the "export" market. The partnership recognized people (Las Chicas Bravas) for what they can do, not for what they cannot do, and we believe it will eventually outgrow the Vermont facility.
Good Point Recycling and Retroworks de Mexico currently employ about 30 people. Ten of those people are employed by the reuse and repair of equipment - which is about 23% of what we handle. The rest are employed in demanufacturing and processing of all the metals and plastics and circuitry which comes out as "e-scrap".
American Retroworks Inc. does not break cathode ray tubes, though we maintain that capacity at both our USA and Mexico facilities. The Mexico operation is currently suspended from breaking, recycling, or processing the CRTs due to an interruption in permitting, involving a large local smelter which has given the Retroworks de Mexico operation a purchase order for leaded silica (the main chemistry of CRTs). The proposed process is well established and has taken place in metal smelters in Canada (Noranda, Xstrata, Teck Cominco) and Mexico (Goldcorp's smelter in Torreon) and we consider it non-controversial, but in an abundance of compliance, we have stopped acting as an end-market for CRTs and currently re-transit those we accept in Mexico back to the USA.
Our business model is to embrace the "value added" electronics - fully functional parts and units - and to incentivize proper recycling of incidental breakage and fallout through "fair trade" agreements. This strategy implicitly embraces the "e-waste" export market, which has been loudly criticized by some NGOs. In return for NGO endorsement, other processors have adapted a "no-intact unit" export policy (no one has a zero export practice, though some companies claim it).
The primary purpose of this blog is to establish and maintain transparency. We believe that shredders, planned obsolescence interests, and no-intact-unit companies have participated in a slander campaign against re-manufacturing businesses in the hopes of cornering the raw materials market through "command and control" legislation. ARI's CEO and chief blogger, Robin Ingenthron, worked at Massachusetts DEP as recycling director in the 1990s, where the very first "waste ban" on CRTs was established. Since that law was implemented in 1999, more and more language has been added to the "e-waste" recycling bills in other states. Generally, the outcome has been less repair and reuse, and as a consequence, higher prices for businesses and consumers.
"The Waste Makers", by Vance Packard, was published in 1960 - the same year as Rachel Carlson published "Silent Spring". These works, publish a half century ago, are the bookends of recycling policy. The solid waste hierarchy - reduce, reuse, and recycle - incorporates both the theme of production costs and the theme of disposal cost. "Silent Spring" emphasized the "end of the pipe" effects of toxic effluents on nature, and was consequential in determining waste policy. The first book has been given less attention. However, most of the environmental harms ever caused by a product occured in mining, refining, and manufacture - before the product is ever used, or ever placed on a retail shelf, most of the energy and toxics it will ever produce have already been released.
Both of the books above were criticized as muckraking, and Packard and Carlson have been grouped with Ralph Nader (who criticized the safety of products during their intended use) as 1960s social activism aping scientific research, and achieving legislation through populist fear mongering. The theme of this blog is how engineering and recycling policy can pick up where populism leaves off. The best response to Vance Packard's criticism of marketing unnecessary new products has been credited to auto manufacturers, who pointed out that they support used cars for economic reasons. In places where used cars are maintained and available, people can afford to learn to drive at an earlier age. The sooner someone learns to drive, the more cars they will own in their lifetime. The brand on the first car the person drives tends to be represented well in the subsequent cars that person purchases in their lives. So maintaining old cars, they reasoned, is a sound strategy.
We believe that was a genuine response to the Waste Makers. We likewise believe that maintaining old electronics makes the computer and internet more affordable to people who could never afford a new computer. We believe that internet and mass media are more important than driving. By refusing to sign a "no export" pledge, but promising to obey international law, this company has chosen a somewhat contrarian position to those accused of exporting everything (100% export certainly indicates some "toxics along for the ride") as well as to those who write laws, like California's SB20 "cancellation" policy (CRTs must be ruined before they can be exported??), which have unintended consequences.
The decade of American Retroworks Inc., while it continues to have one owner, blogger in chief, risk taker, philosopher, and investor, is unique in that it occurred somewhat before the internet became so crowded with information that it would be lost in the noise, but after the internet made publishing affordable. It has been a unique decade to start a business. The recycling business - or cyber junk yard - is unique in that it involves the lowest rung of wages and employment, the most attractive field for young college educated environmentalists, the most active field of environmental regulation, and the amazing international trade with geeks and women entrepreneurs and raw material companies. As we enter our tenth year of business, we intend to continue activism, dialectic, debate, and transparency. However, it is also likely that the growth of the business will demand OPM ("other peoples money"), and the rate of growth will not be sustainable on sweat equity, and the limited profitability of the recycling business (which is about commodities, not patents) will preclude scaleable growth without bringing in outside investors.
When that happens, hopefully, the investors will like the company's attitude to date. We are positioned as a company which embraces international trade, and seeks to reform the excesses of the "export" business with greater communication, QA/QC, and accountability, not with noisy shredding machines and trite Pledges.