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Where Do Old Monitors Go After the Curb?

An underrated economic indicator could be the quality of our nation's trash and the price it brings in the open market. But considerable controversy is attached to recycling computer equipment for overseas sale to developing countries.

Robin Ingenthron, President of American Retroworks, Inc., a Vermont recycling company that he started after a career in recycling in Massachusetts, says that we're being subjected to polarizing messages. On one hand, we're told that we should recycle our computers. On the other hand, activist organizations such as the Basel Action Network (BAN) publicize pictures of third-world countries being inundated with the electronic trash and other toxic wastes of more developed countries. In 2004, Ingenthron and his colleagues started the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association (WR3A), a recycling cooperative to ship computers, televisions, and electronic equipment overseas. The organization started in November and was "immediately flooded with demand," says Ingenthron.

Ingenthron explains the dilemma: Organizations often don't know about demand for discarded working computer equipment. Currently there also are no set guidelines for export of used and obsolete computer equipment overseas. "A lot are in the eye of the beholder," Ingenthron says dryly. Unethical and sloppy recyclers make overseas importers accept bad monitors with the good—what Ingenthron terms "Toxics Along for the Ride" (TAR).

Ingenthron and his colleagues are setting up standards; they test their computer monitors to see that they work before shipping them overseas. Although such merchandise costs more, as importers get wind of the higher quality of shipments, demand has far outstripped supply.

WR3A would never be able to do this type of business without the Internet. Lots are often relatively small and shipped from different locations. Orders come in over the Net and WR3A distributes them to cooperating recycling firms.

"Good tubes are where our market is," says Ingenthron. "Six years ago, when we tested every single monitor, only a third worked well. Now 65% work well." One reason is that more people are upgrading to flat-screen panels and discarding perfectly usable CRT monitors. If a monitor breaks in the U.S., the cost to repair it is comparable to buying a new one. In countries with lower labor costs, the price differential is greater.

In developing countries, combination computer/television sets made from refurbished computers and televisions are selling like hotcakes. "The fastest-growing markets are China and India," Ingenthron comments. "They have merged television broadcast and computers." In China, dealers sell monitor/TV combos made with used tubes. Because the picture tube counts for 95% of the cost of a TV, reusing a working tube cuts down tremendously on the cost of a set.

"The attitude that things are disposable is a purely American business," Ingenthron remarks.

"There are hugely effective voices out there committed to stopping reuse and export," says Lynn Rubinstein, Executive Director of the Northeast Recycling Council. Depending on the size of the screen and the age of the equipment, recycling costs vary widely around the U.S. A 19-inch to 21-inch TV or 14-inch computer monitor can cost $5–10 to recycle. The cost of collecting materials doubles that price, says Rubinstein.

In states such as Massachusetts, it's illegal to dump your TV or monitor. On the other hand, recycling has a dramatic multiplier effect on the economy. Generally, you need one person to handle every ton of trash. For every ton of recyclables, you need five people. The indirect needs are even larger, Rubinstein says. In other words, recycling and reuse can make good business sense as well as being environmentally friendly.

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