When Robin Ingenthron established Middlebury, Vermont-based American Retroworks Inc. (ARI) and its Good Point Recycling division, he did so on a foundation he learned from his grandfather: “A rich person’s broken thing” is the highest and smartest way to earn money. He’s carried that philosophy with him over the last two decades as he expanded his business in the electronics reuse and recycling industry.
If you asked Ingenthron in high school what he imagined himself doing for a career, his guess wasn’t too far off. His goal was to make a living in international travel.
To turn that goal into a reality, he studied international relations at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota. While there, he studied international law for a semester in Switzerland. Once he earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations, he spent three years working with the Peace Corps in Cameroon. While in Cameroon, he learned that what his grandfather taught him held true around the world; many people in Cameroon were reusing and repairing rich people’s broken things.
Ingenthron returned to the U.S. to get his MBA at Boston University. While studying, he received his commercial driver’s license (CDL) and began working at Earthworm Recycling of Massachusetts. He served as a co-director at the firm, picking up recyclables from area businesses.
He later used that experience at Earthworm Recycling, coupled with what he observed while in Africa, in his consulting work with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), which began in 1992. That consulting gig turned into a full-time position with the MassDEP, which he held until 1999. He stepped down from that role with the department and instead served as a consultant to MassDEP, helping to develop the nation’s first cathode-ray tube (CRT) waste ban.
Ingenthron went on several trips overseas in the 1990s, learning that factories in China were making monitors for Dell and HP that used cathode-ray tubes that could last for 20 to 25 years. But in America, those same monitors were being thrown away after four or five years, even though those tubes had another 20 years of life in them.
In addition, throughout his time with MassDEP, he learned a valuable lesson about electronics reuse and recycling: About 20 percent of electronic scrap could be reused somewhere by someone, and that by reusing that 20 percent, costs to handle that scrap could be reduced by nearly 80 percent.
“What an American doesn’t repair is very rarely because it can’t be repaired, it’s because we’re rich and we want something new,” he says.
So far, Ingenthron’s carried that knowledge with him throughout his career, repairing, reusing and then recycling what he can.
The past 20 years
After formally leaving MassDEP, Ingenthron launched ARI in 2001. Starting out of a small office in Middlebury, he bought a truck and started Good Point Recycling, a division of ARI. He created Good Point Recycling to separate ARI’s consulting services from the actual recycling company. His consulting work was taking him around the state anyway, so he figured he could use his CDL to grow his business by picking up materials along the way.
Through years of international travel and research, he knew parts of those CRT televisions were reusable and recyclable, but Americans weren’t recycling that.
That’s where Good Point Recycling came in. The company started by taking apart CRT televisions and monitors and recycling what could be recycled and reusing what had some life left.
However, as CRT devices were replaced by flat-screen televisions and displays, Ingenthron knew Good Point Recycling had to adapt to continue.
Today, between plasma, LED and LCD televisions and displays, Good Point Recycling brings in about $50,000 per month harvesting and selling parts to repairmen.
“What an American doesn’t repair is very rarely because it can’t be repaired, it’s because we’re rich and we want something new.” – Robin Ingenthron, founder of Middlebury, Vermont-based American Retroworks Inc. and its Good Point Recycling division
Good Point has many other facets to its business, including municipal and commercial collections, computer refurbishing, online equipment and component sales, data wiping and destruction and working internationally with repairmen and women in Africa, Asia and South America.
Through the ups and downs of the electronics recycling market, Ingenthron has held on to one motto he believes has made Good Point Recycling so resilient: “We try to be the very best at something,” he says.
Work around the world
Ingenthron started his career by traveling around the world to learn about the best and brightest and what they could offer the recycling industry. He’s stood by their abilities over the last 20 years by continuing to do business with them, showing others what they can do and starting new business divisions in partnership with some of these individuals.
Not only has it helped Good Point Recycling grow, but it’s also helped people around the world gain skills to make a living wage, inspiring those around them.
Retroworks de Mexico, Sonora, Mexico, is a sister company of Good Point Recycling that started in 2007. It’s entirely women-run and was created to empower women to help improve the environment, Ingenthron says. The company does not permanently “import” e-scrap from the U.S., but instead buys televisions for reuse, breaks down electronics for parts and sends scrap materials back to the U.S. to a Responsible Recycling- (R2-) certified facility for processing.
In 2006, Ingenthron also created Fair Trade Recycling, a business consortium of used electronics professionals, academics and environmental activists operating in the U.S. and overseas. Members of the group pledge to reform the export market, treat importers fairly and eliminate “toxics along for the ride.” The group has member companies in Africa, Asia and South America. Between 10 and 20 percent of reusable electronics collected in Vermont are sent to those overseas partners for refurbishment.
As he learned early on, Ingenthron says some of the smartest repairmen and women work in places like Mexico and Ghana, so supplying them with material they can refurbish and reuse provides them with work and allows them to use their skills.
Ingenthron has been working within Mexico and Ghana, as well as in other places around the world, for years. He says he hopes others harness the repair skills of people all around the globe, adding that it’s hard to imagine continued success in the electronics reuse and recycling industry unless people step away from what they’re used to.
“The single biggest issue has not changed,” Ingenthron says about working outside the U.S., “which is our fundamental anger and opposition to structural and implicit racism as applied to the overseas markets scaring Americans from doing business with a laptop repairman from Ghana, or a CRT Ph.D. engineer from Taipei or a cellphone repair wizard from Lima, Peru.”
Ingenthron says working with people and companies in emerging markets through Fair Trade Recycling has helped Good Point Recycling get to where it’s at today. He says he hopes the electronics reuse and recycling industry will be more focused on reforming export markets and treating those working around the world fairly.
“It certainly helps if you don’t drink the anti-export Kool-Aid,” Ingenthron continues.
Solar panels recycling
Just as CRT televisions largely have been phased out, Ingenthron imagines a day when LCD, LED and plasma televisions and computer displays are no longer produced and when solar panels become much more common.
Right now, he says people in many developed countries get rid of solar panels when they drop to about 50 or 60 percent efficiency. However, a 50-percent-efficient panel can still be effective in Ghana, simply because that country has more sunlight than Vermont and Massachusetts have.
Ingenthron says solar panel reuse and recycling could thrive in the developing world but only if recyclers are open-minded.
Looking to the future
Good Point Recycling has grown during the past 20 years, including doubling staff and quadrupling material volume at its Brockton, Massachusetts, plant last year. Ingenthron credits this growth to listening to the market and working with materials people want and use. But he says it’s important to look forward, too.
While Ingenthron doesn’t know exactly where he sees the business heading in the next decade, he is optimistic about the journey. “I don’t know if in the next 10 years I’ll retire, but I’d like to grow with investments,” he says.
Good Point Recycling received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. With the help of that money and the company’s adaptability, Ingenthron says things will be tight through September but should level out afterward.
In addition to expanding into solar panel reuse and recycling, Good Point Recycling has received a five-year contract with the Massachusetts Operational Services Division. Ingenthron says Good Point was one of six companies awarded the FAC110 Massachusetts statewide contract. “It is essentially a blanket procurement which allows any municipality, public college, school or office to purchase services directly without public bidding,” he explains. “Good Point’s office in Brockton has taken over assets from two previous statewide contractors who have ceased operations (CRT Recycling of Brockton and Electronix Redux of Norfolk, Massachusetts).”
While the future isn’t totally planned out quite yet, Ingenthron says he hopes to continue to grow his companies.