Suppose you could recycle your TV for the price of a few cups of coffee, and know that it was done safely? This is the mission of American Retroworks Inc., an international recycling company for used electronics equipment – TVs, computers, printers, cathode ray tubes, mercury fluorescent lamps, and so forth – from business and residential “e-waste” collection programs in a six-state area.
American Retroworks was founded by Robin Ingenthron, who became excited by recycling in the late 1970s in Arkansas. After college, he joined the Peace Corps and then returned to business school and recycling in the late 1980s. Ingenthron was hired as Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Recycling Director in the 1990s and started the first state collection of used computers and TVs. But when he moved to Vermont with his wife after she took at job at Middlebury College, he was unable to find work. Ingenthron then turned to electronics collections, recruited TV repairpeople to “vet” loads for export, and found buyers and partners online.
According to independent research by Earth Techling, the e-waste (better defined as “e-scrap”) market was worth $5.78 billion last year and will be worth an estimated $14.7 billion by 2014. That estimate includes raw material, salvage, and fees, which are increasingly charged back to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) under legislation passed in 21 states.
American Retroworks is organized around demanufacturing (recycling) 77% of the material it receives and re-exporting for professional repair and refurbishment accounts for the remaining 23%. Twenty percent of the material exported brings in 80% of revenues, which in 2009 were over $1.25 million. Ingenthron said that revenues did take a hit when scrap prices fell to pre-World War II lows in 2009, right after the company spent $1.3 million for a 50,000 square foot facility. But he expects business to pick up following deals with new clients and the passage of laws making e-waste recycling mandatory; Vermont’s law takes effect next year.
The company has two distinct sets of customers and makes money on both equipment coming in and equipment going out. American Retroworks collects from businesses and municipalities that do not want to be considered e-waste exporters but that understand the business model and are comfortable with reuse. Customers include Sony, Acer, Viewsonic, and LG, which all selected American Retroworks to manage their programs in Rhode Island. Other clients have included the City of Boston, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the New York Department of Sanitation. Private citizens are also customers; for example, recognizing that people could recycle their TVs “for the cost of two coffees or one bridge toll,” American Retroworks started a pay-for-service program for which it charged $10 per TV. For the export market, American Retroworks uses alibaba.com, exporters.com.sg, recycleinme.com, recycle.net, and online forums to find trading partners in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, and Senegal, among other countries. American Retroworks does not export any of the equipment it receives for disposal, and its technicians go abroad to work with partners on safe recycling and refurbishing practices.
The company uses a base facility (Good Point Recycling) in Middlebury, Vermont, to receive and process equipment from the six state-based collection programs. American Retroworks also recently opened a new office in Mexico with collections in Douglas, Arizona. Further, Ingenthron started a “fair trade” program, Retroworks de Mexico, in partnership with a women’s collective called Las Chicas Bravas (“The Tough Women”) in the Mexican state of Sonora. The women own 50% of this fair trade business. “It’s been a trip,” says Ingenthron. “Ladies in their fifties fly to Vermont and cross-train with my staff.”
E-waste recycling was a green field at the time of American Retroworks’s founding. Some companies had a zero export policy, domestically recycling everything and charging high fees. Others exported everything, leveraging the reuse value to, in Ingenthron’s words, “kite away” their difficult-to-manage (and toxic) wastes to place where they were not always recycled in a way that was safe for workers or the environment. “No one in the business had traveled to China or anywhere, and yet had a shrill opinion on their own business,” adds Ingenthron. He believes that American Retroworks’s chief advantage was that other recyclers waited for legislation to pass while his company got a head start with ideas such as the $10 TV recycling program. Other U.S.-based e-waste recyclers are E-Waste Recyclers, LLC; eWaste.com; eWaste Center, Inc.; Ewaste Solutions; E-Waste Solutions; File 13; and Advanced E-Waste Solutions. Many e-waste recyclers are small, regional businesses.
American Retroworks was initially funded through credit cards but by the fourth quarter of 2008 was big enough for Small Business Association (SBA) and commercial bank loans for building and equipment. The company was selected as a finalist for the Angel Capital Network’s Investors’ Circle in the fall of 2009, and Ingenthron wants to branch out while completing capitalization in Mexico. He says the company is discussing possible financing with foreign investors who understand metals and reuse, with angel capital investors, and with traditional recyclers who recognize growth in a mature market.
As for an exit, Ingenthron says that American Retroworks is attracting attention from traditional waste haulers and larger recyclers that were afraid to enter a “complicated” and “hazardous exposure” field. He adds, “I really like the idea of a Malaysian or Mexican investor, and Singapore or India would be awesome, but we are probably going to get financed or acquired by a USA paper company who sees ‘paperless offices’ coming up and sees ‘e-waste’ as an exit strategy for their own business.”
This segment is a part in the series : Deal Radar 2010