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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Good Point recycling

In a warehouse off Exchange Street in Middlebury, towers of old computer parts sit awaiting shipment to Malaysia. Last year, over four million pounds of such components made their way through the warehouse doors.

This is the extent of Middlebury’s Good Point Recycling, one of the nation’s leading electronics recycling operations. Dealing with anything from cathode ray tubes (CRTs) to painted circuit boards to computer hard drives, the company strives to provide affordable computer and television recycling and, by extension, affordable technology to poor areas through reuse. Established in 2003 by company president Robin Ingenthron, Good Point has grown with the increasing demand for the particularity of its services.

“There are lots of different components [of electronic waste] that an auto scrap yard or any other sort of salvage yard wouldn’t be set up for,” said Colin Davis ’03, vice president of Good Point Recycling. “There are lots of different markets you have to pay attention to, different sorts of buyers. It tends to be a specialized business.”

The need for such specialization is a recent phenomenon, coming to head at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) where Ingenthron helped write the country’s first piece of legislation on e-waste regulation. The state enacted this in the form of a waste ban on CRTs that took effect on April 1, 2000, making it illegal for Massachusetts waste disposal facilities to accept computer monitors and television screens built with the tubes.

“MassDEP was looking to pass the legislation because they were looking at the switch to digital for television,” explained Davis. “So they were [asking themselves], ‘Once people start throwing out all these televisions, what are we going to do? Do we want these things in a landfill?’ So they did a study and they decided that they did want to do a waste ban. In order to do that, though, you have to figure out a place for everything to go.”

E-waste recycling was among the proposed solutions to this problem, but met initial resistance.

“To protect consumers from radiation, these things have barium and lead in them,” explained Davis, “and so these consultants were saying we needed to treat this stuff as hazardous waste, which would cost tons of money.”

But Good Point maintains that the best way to manage this is through e-waste recycling, taking a “cradle to cradle” approach in their dedication to reuse.

“They can be reused to a certain extent,” said Davis of the CRTs. “Samsung Corning was taking these back and making new CRT monitors out of them, which they wanted to do because this is a less expensive feedstock than pulling [the materials] out of the earth.”

But Good Point and other e-waste recycling facilities are encountering opposition. Davis cited the Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based organization concerned with environmental justice and human rights violations in the realm of waste disposal.

“They’ve taken a very strict interpretation of the Basel Convention, which regulates material moving from developed to non-developed countries,” explained Davis. “Basically, they don’t want the U.S. or other developed countries dumping their trash on poor countries.”

“This is great,” continued Davis, “but BAN has taken a very aggressive stance. Effectively what they’ve done is killed the last glass-to-glass practice. No companies can ship to Samsung Corning anymore, even though it’s the best environmental solution to this stuff. It’s a ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’ sort of deal.”

Good Point claims to have come up with an alternative to the dumping that groups like the BAN resist. The company refers to this as fair trade recycling, comparing it to the responsible production strategies of coffee farms.

“BAN is taking pictures of little kids sitting on piles of trash saying the U.S. is dumping all of its trash and therefore we should stop exports altogether,” explained Davis. “We’re saying, ‘yes, we agree that there are bad actors in our industry, but we shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’ There are good ways to do this and we’ve identified economic incentives for people working with us to do the right thing.”

Fortunately for Ingenthron and his team, Good Point maintains a close relationship with a refurbishing plant in Malaysia, where the Samsung facility is located. This relationship allows Good Point to pursue glass-to-glass reuse where BAN has prevented other recycling facilities from doing so.

“We screen out probably 40 or 50 percent of monitors that can’t be reused and ship them over there,” Davis said. “They recycle the load in Malaysia, and they send all the glass to Samsung.”

The relationship with the Malaysian plant was fostered in the spirit of Good Point’s social mission, which it pursues as readily as its environmental undertaking.

“[Ingenthron] cares very deeply about people in developing countries having access to affordable technologies,” said Davis of his colleague, who served in the Peace Corps. “He thinks [technology] is really important for them to break that cycle of poverty. The way that they’re going to do that is not by going out and buying new computer equipment.”

The Malaysian factory, and a facility that Good Point now co-owns with a women’s group in Mexico, allows people in poorer countries to close the digital divide, providing functioning refurbished goods.

“We’re trying to develop that sort of infrastructure, so that these sorts of things can be done and people [in the U.S.] can be at ease that it’s happening in the right way,” said Davis.
Good Point believes they can create social change on a local level as well, providing jobs and technical training to Vermonters.

“In round terms, recycling creates 10 more jobs per ton than landfilling,” estimated Davis. “Reuse creates 100 times more jobs than landfilling.” Additionally, Davis pointed out the skills that Good Point’s employees develop on the job, claiming these skills are more beneficial than those they could take away from other entry-level jobs.

But Ingenthron and his colleagues have encountered difficulties in seeing this mission to a successful end, not least of which are financial.

“This is a low margin business — it’s pennies on the pound,” said Davis.

Additionally, as states follow in Massachusetts’ example, controversies are beginning to surround the e-waste recycling business.

“Many [states] are calling for involvement from the manufacturers themselves. It’s called product stewardship or manufacturers’ responsibility — basically, just making manufacturers responsiblefor their recycling costs.” This initiative has been unsuccessful so far.

“A waste ban is one thing, but trying to institute a really complicated system where who’s responsible for what is based on incoming tonnage and all these different things, is another story,” said Davis.

Furthermore, Good Point fears involvement from a government organization that does not understand the details of its specific business. Vermont is considering such legislation and Good Point is wary of pledging support.

“We’re concerned that it happens in the right way,” said Davis. “We’re not saying that we’re totally against product stewardship, but we don’t want someone coming in here telling us how to run our business without knowing how it’s done.”

Instead, Good Point would like to take product stewardship into its own hands, keeping it out of the legislature. The company launched a pilot program with Sony, seeking solutions to this problem.

“One of the major concerns with all these state programs is that it’s very difficult for a company like Sony to know that they’re actually paying for their stuff [to be recycled],” explained Davis. “They don’t have someone in the plant watching to see that they’re just charging for Sony. They might be charging for Magnavox and Panasonic.”

Good Point Recycling has developed a tracking system with Sony that allows the electronics company to insure that they are paying only to recycle their own products. Having seen success with the pilot program, Good Point now signed contracts with Sharp, Panasonic and Toshiba.

“That’s something we’ve done that’s novel in the industry,” said Davis. “It’s helping to lower recycling costs because the original equipment manufacturers are picking up the tab.”

In the face of challenges, innovations like this keep Davis hopeful about the future of the company. “We’re going to try to continue to grow,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have some success in our efforts to support export for reuse, and to support places in need.”