Robin Ingenthron is a man with a story. He’s been in the repairing and recycling business for the best part of his student and professional life. Each year, 50 million tonnes of e-waste is dumped in toxic tips. From Cameroon to Vermont, USA, he tries to bridge the gap and figure out a way to reconcile ecological good sense, economic progress, and true equal-to-equal partnerships. He created his own e-waste company Good Point Recycling and an NGO called Fair Trade Recycling to engage with and defend Africa, Asia, and Latin America’s emerging tech sector from false profiling as “primitive” and “informal” recyclers. Put some working gloves on, we’re scrapping some wires and motherboards today.
Plan A: Hi Robin, thanks for showing us your world! How did get involved in recycling and e-waste in the first place anyway?
Robin Ingenthron: When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980’s in Cameroon, no one was thinking about e-waste. Even then in 1984, my landlord owned a television with a VCR. The Nigerian sold counterfeit VHS tapes that you could buy at any market. Even in 1986 in remote places, with no electricity but with a generator, Africans had television.
I come from a very poor part of the United States, called the Ozark mountains. Growing up there, they didn’t use the word “poverty porn” – But the Ozarks was the place to go film the “hillbillies”. People were making movies, comic strips, and songs about the poorest folks in America. My grandparents were very resentful of it, although it did bring tourism money.
We bought used stuff and were taught to fix everything. When I was 5, my grandfather got me under his truck and frightened me, saying “This is how you change the oil filter, you need to know this Robby. You’re going to be the man of the house!” (I was the first of the generation). He told me “Nobody here can afford a new car. Your choices are: either you can buy a used car for $2,000, or if you’re smart like Grandpa’s brother, you can go to the big city, where the rich people live, and buy the cars that stopped working. You can buy those cars for 500 dollars because the rich person knows it is broken and doesn’t know how to deal with it so he gets rid of it.”
When I saw the same thing in Africa in the 1980s, I could see how and why people lived from recycling. That’s how I fell in love with the reuse market. When I left Africa, I got an MBA to become a recycler.
How did you start your recycling business Good Point?
When I was teaching in Cameroon in the 80’s, I was thinking about what would be the best jobs for my African students. No one used the word “white-saviour”, but, I was conscious of not wanting to take pictures of myself with grass huts and just forget about it. I felt guilty about exoticism. What could I do that wouldn’t mean that this would not just be a passport stamp for Robin?
What would I hope in 15 years when I would come back here? There are really bad jobs in Africa. God forbid they would be hunting elephants, or become child soldiers or robbers. But those “bad” jobs get most of the press. They get way too much press. They are actually pretty unlikely. What was likely for my students if I came back 15 years later was agriculture. It’s a very tough life, but its always there. If we wanted to imagine them owning a TV and have a better standard of living, as my landlord at the time, they’d be working for the government. The problem with that is none of us liked African government workers too much.
This inspired me to work with the value-added provided by the repair market. There weren’t enough e-waste and electronics to repair but cars could get fixed. I knew a lot of people here could take something of no use and make it work again. It was the most honest way a smart African person could make a thousand dollars, by fixing something they knew how to fix… just like my grandpa.
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So to actually engage in trade with Africans, I’d have to get into trade and business. I decided to get an MBA degree. I’d cut my hair, and do some math. Recycling, I realised, was a business. When I got to business school, I was still researching my ideas from Cameroon. I wrote a paper in 1992 on value added. If you look at what a person can do to something to add value to it, the amount of human labour represents a very small percentage of the added value. Looking at the efforts needed to mine, the pollution caused by logging, recycling paper gets you the same value as new paper. Repair, I showed in this paper, brought the most value to the people.
Jumping ahead, I then worked for the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 8 years. I helped write the regulations on e-waste for the USA. Life happened and my wife and I moved to a small town in Vermont. I called my best friend from Cameroon. He and I had always talked about starting this repair and reuse business. He was already married to the peace corps volunteer that replaced me. Now that turned out to be a long story. But I bought a truck and that’s how I started this business in 2001.
You work with people across the world, not just Ghana or Cameroon. How did that come about?
This was back in 2002 – 2003. At the time, most of my money came as a consultant and from customers who were interested in international markets or electronics recycling because that was a new field that I was invested in it.
The computers that my shop was not able to fix eventually started piling up so much that I had to do something. So I started advertising them on websites like Alibaba, recycle.net and other dedicated internet pages.
It was very new at the time to be able to trade on the internet. I started getting these inquiries from China and Egypt. They were willing to fly to Vermont to my small warehouse to inspect the goods. I thought: “Wow! I just listed these things on the internet and made a new friend.” So people started flying from different places around the world and I was meeting them in my warehouse. I started to see some patterns. Different buyers had different specialities, and they had very different needs. The level of specificity was very sophisticated.
I got a partner who was a TV repairman whom I learned a lot from. I asked “ why is that the Chinese buyers only want the monitors and are not interested in the computers? They refused the ones made by Sony Trinitron that I had tested and worked fine. The Egyptian guy, on the other hand, will buy them – a whole container-load. He likes them but she doesn’t. Both of them will buy the ones that do not work.
What was the catch?
So the top price was for products that I had put in the junk pile but they both wanted that one. Their offer was “I will pay you 10 dollars for the bad one and I will pay you nothing for the certain ones that work.” They were pros, they knew exactly what they were doing.
So I sold to each of them in exchange for flying there to see why they’re worth what they are.
It turns out that the Chinese buyers were interested in a specific piece – the cathode ray – and it was the factory that made the original monitors. Dell never had a monitor factory. Dell never made a monitor. They were just making the computers and outsourcing the assembly to these Chinese companies. The Chinese company wanted the ones even if they didn’t work explained that a cathode ray lasts for 20 to 25 years depending on how much it is used. It is the most expensive part of the display device. A brand new cathode ray cost $110 and they had been buying brand new ones to make monitors that would last 25 years. Instead, they could buy them from me after they had been used only 3 or 4 years for only $10.
That lowers the price to their buyers and they can sell them to India, Pakistan and China. They couldn’t get enough of them because the monitors were selling so well! They also bought TV tuners so they could work both as a computer monitor and a television.
So if you’re India and you have an income of $2000. A CRT monitor that cost $100 less that can be both a television and a monitor. What I saw was this Peace Corps volunteer’s wet dream. The Chinese people had 1,001 employees all buying these used ones and put them back on the exact same assembly line that made the original ones for HP and Dell.
I also flew to Egypt to see what they were doing there. It was something very different cosmetically. They wanted nice ones and brand names. They had 5 stores, mostly at universities. Handi – my Egyptian client – showed me: if they the don’t sell in 3 weeks they start to be predators on the price to sell them quickly. He had his own sophisticated way that was very different from the Chinese remanufacturing firm.
You are critical of sensationalist environmentalism. Why is that and how did this change your perspective?
Recycling makes TV and internet affordable to people that couldn’t afford it. There’s no mining, no extraction. Resources and ecosystems are preserved. I came back very excited from my trips abroad.
I started writing a blog in 2007 to explain the recycling system we had put in place… and also to give a critical counterpoint to the white-saviour complex displayed by some and fanned by an excessive and not entirely thorough press coverage.
In 2008 in the USA, “boycott e-waste exportation” was the dominant story. People from around the world started just coming to my shop because no one would sell computers to Africa because of the pressure. They had heard of this crazy guy in Vermont who was interested in doing business with them!
More Egyptians, Senegalese, a Ghanaian… I couldn’t sell to all of them! I didn’t have enough product because my business was too small. That’s when I started the association fairtraderecycling.org (WR3A). We must defend these people because the solution isn’t for everyone to buy from one guy in Vermont. If everybody refuses to sell to the geeks, like the war on drugs, they will have to buy lower quality because they can’t buy from businesses unwilling to sell to them. That’s why I started Fair Trade Recycling. To avoid the consequences of unintended racial profiling in e-recycling.
In my African classrooms, the best and brightest kids – whose parents are not ministers that could send them to Harvard – could become electronics repair and recyclers and make a good living.
Do you think that implementing a circular model economy for all products could be a solution for all waste problems?
Well, no. But it is a part of it. Africa believes and is a part of the circular economy. But it doesn’t think it revolves around you. We’re trying to make the tech sector part of the solution. For the past 15-20 years that I’ve been doing this, I do not claim that what the Egyptians, Chinese, Indonesians, of what they purchased still works. I don’t know. If it was fixed 10-15 years ago, probably not anymore. But by trading with them, we can incentives for Africa to be a part of the solution. That’s what the fair trade recycling idea is about.
We’re now kicking off a scheme to donate a container’s worth of value to our partner in Ghana if he will collect junk TVs that were imported in the 1980’s in Africa. For every 20 tons of goods stuff that he buys he will be able to use the money instead of paying us. It’s like a trading system or an offsetting process. This month the first two containers should leave port.
Robin Ingenthron is trying to recreate his Peace Corps experience through my business, bringing wealth and value to friends overseas through fair trade environmental standards. He believes that the amount of money society will make available to improve the environment is finite and believes regulation of the free market must be done wisely and sparingly.