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College hosts forum for ‘fair trade recycling,’ experts seek safer handling of material

MIDDLEBURY — Consumers are used to seeing specialty stores stocked with fair trade coffee, chocolate and produce. Robin Ingenthron has added one more idea to the lexicon: fair trade recycling, a concept that’s catching on in national and international markets.
When electronics like cell phones, outdated computer monitors and portable music devices are discarded, the parts can be broken down and reused. But the process isn’t simple, nor is it always safe. Electronic parts contain chemicals that, if irresponsibly processed and discarded, can be harmful to the people that handle the parts and the land where unusable parts are disposed of.
Ingenthron, a Middlebury resident, has worked to make handling those out-of-date electronics a business under the fair trade recycling banner.  On Tuesday, Middlebury College hosted the first Fair Trade Recycling summit.
Organized by Ingenthron and attended by activists, regulators and importers from around the world, the summit marked the first time that college and university researchers gathered to discuss e-waste recycling in developing and emerging export markets. Many of those gathered believe such markets could grow from $10 billion to $55 billion by 2015 as responsible reuse systems expand.
Ingenthron is president of American Retroworks Inc., a consulting and recycling services company. American Retroworks owns and operates its own e-scrap reuse facility in Middlebury’s industrial park called Good Point Recycling, which processes all of the electronic waste from Champlain College, the University of Vermont and trash transfer stations from around the state. In 2008, the company opened a second fair trade recycling facility in Mexico, with collection points in Douglas, Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.
“The fair trade recycling movement is an alternative to two extremes,” Ingenthron said. “On one extreme is people sending whatever they want wherever they want and not being held accountable, not being able to tell people where their product ended up or whether it’s creating pollution or harm. The reaction to that, which comes in the … (Basel Action Network, or BAN), created a system to tax people and destroy every old television that comes in whether they’re working or not.”
The first generation of e-waste was sent to developing nations, a practice that eventually fell out of favor because of the toxic waste’s damaging effects on people and land. The backlash, led by BAN, was so extreme that, according to Ingenthron, responsible companies in developing nations that had perfectly good facilities were being turned away for no good reason, an attitude that he believes reflects a racist and post-colonial mindset.
Ingenthron said that his company’s willingness to open e-waste trade across borders, according to ethical standards, helped make Vermont a hub for fair trade recycling. American Retroworks and its Good Point Recycling site have branched out over the years into Fair Trade Recycling, which Ingenthron said is based in Vermont but now has members in 19 countries around the world.
“We’ve become a place where people come … to make sure they’re not going to get shut out (of business) and to make sure they’re not going to get called a primitive and thrown out of the room,” Ingenthron said.
Tuesday’s Fair Trade Recycling summit — which featured talks by Middlebury College faculty members Nadia Horning, who gave a talk titled “Environmental Policy in the Developing World,” and Jon Isham, who gave a talk called “Externalization of Opportunity or Harm?” — was the first where regulators, watchdogs, activists and interested businesspeople came together to discuss fair trade recycling. The summit also included the presentation of research on establishing fair trade practices in the recycling industry from MIT, Memorial University, University of Peru, the University of Southern California, and Thunderbird University in Arizona. Participants came to Vermont from Africa, South America and Asia to attend what they hope will be an annual gathering.
In the meantime, all who attended seemed confident that the fair trade recycling movement was growing. Ingenthron said that the “movement” became a reality for him when it began to net national attention. In 2011 he presented to the University of California, and followed up at Brown and MIT later that year. Interns arrived from France, Mexico and the Netherlands to work at Good Point Recycling.
“To me, the movement started when the universities started to say, ‘This makes sense, we should do this,’” Ingenthron said. 

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