Vermont-based electronics recycler looks back on 10 years in business.
American Retroworks Inc. (ARI), Middlebury, Vt., is celebrating its 10th year of electronics recycling this spring. In a news release announcing its 10-year anniversary, ARI says it is now “a contractor for major corporations, managing more than 5 million pounds” of electronic scrap in 2010.
In its first two years, ARI had one employee, Robin Ingenthron, the company’s founder and CEO, who initially acted as truck driver, consultant, accountant, online sales associate “and heavy lifter,” according to the news release.
ARI delivered collected electronics to Electronicycle Inc. in Massachusetts, which then hired Ingenthron as a vice president to help manage the company’s reaction to a Bay State disposal ban on used cathode ray tubes (CRTs). Electronicycle was sold to Fresno-Calif.-based ERI in 2007.
In 2003, Ingenthron left Electronicycle to open his own recycling warehouse in Middlebury, hiring his first employee. Client concern over hard drive management led him to hire new employees to de-manufacture non-working computers inhouse later that year.
Ingenthron also pursued "fair trade recycling" agreements internationally. Initially, the company worked very closely with Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN), a nonprofit critic of the electronic scrap export trade. Ingenthron identified problematic markets, such as Lagos, Nigeria, for BAN to visit and says he showed the organization how to vet U.S. companies using the "CRT glass test", which helped to identify companies that were not removing "toxics along for the ride.”
However, Ingenthron says ARI also saw positive trends happening overseas. He has formed partnerships in Lithuania, China, Malaysia, Mexico, Cameroon, Egypt, Peru, Senegal and Indonesia throughout the years. He says he made sure ARI could not be accused of dumping toxic junk in developing markets and he came to see overseas markets "for what they can do not only for what they cannot do."
The same approach led various Vermont employment agencies to seek out positions with ARI. In 2006, one-third of the Good Point Recycling workforce was hired from "welfare to work" and job counseling programs, Ingenthron says. Students from nearby Middlebury College also found fair trade recycling an interesting career path.
"I'm proudest of our role a 'melting pot'," Ingenthron says. "Not only does our workplace bridge the ‘town-and-gown’ divide but we also fly [in] people to visit from developing countries who are exposed not just to Vermonters but to each other."
In 2006 ARI helped open Retroworks de Mexico, a fair-trade partnership in Sonora, Mexico, modeling the company as a women's collective. Nicknamed "Chicas Bravas,” the ladies cross-trained with people from Burkina Faso, Senegal, Cameroon and Egypt, Ingenthron says.
Ingenthron says that during that year he lost patience with BAN over what he calls its constant portrayal of overseas technicians as "primitives.” In response, he founded the WR3A (World Re-use, Repair and Recycling Association) as a nonprofit, fair-trade association to offer an alternative to a mindset of "export boycotts.”
"The people overseas don't want to buy junk from sham recyclers. They really don't,” Ingenthron says. “But if the United States gives them no other choice than to accept junk or stay off the Internet, they will do what they have to."
ARI says its partners in several countries started proper recycling of obsolete electronics on their own terms and some now run "computers for clunkers" operations, offering discounts on computers to people who bring in an older, broken piece of electronics.
The company has subsequently bought a 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Middlebury and operators four trucks and a dozen trailers and employs 20 staff members. Ingenthron says ARI had churned $6 million through Addison County, Vt., by the end of 2010, proving "recycling creates jobs.”
Today, ARI says it is serving customers in New York City, Boston, Providence and other regional hubs. Ingenthron continues to promote “audited, careful exports” and his blog
gets 10,000 page views per month, he says.
More than 75 percent of the equipment ARI receives is torn down and processed into plastic, metals, glass and circuit boards. But the 25 percent of electronics that get a second life in the form of re-use has created lasting friendships around the world, Ingenthron.