SIERRA VISTA – An electronics recycling factory in the town of Fronteras, Mexico, is offering the prospect of hiring many unemployed people and, at the same time, helping to protect the environment.
In 2002, Robin Ingenthron, president of American Retroworks, a recycling management company in Vermont, told Bisbee resident Mike Rohrbach that he observed that many illegal immigrants work in recycling-related jobs in the United States. He suggested establishing a factory in Mexico.
“In a way, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to create jobs that people have to jump the fence for,” he said.
Rohrbach put Ingenthron in touch with Alice Valenzuela. Ingenthron was reluctant to get involved at first, but decided it was worthwhile once he visited the site in Fronteras, Son., a town about 40 miles south of Douglas. Retroworks de Mexico was formed in 2006.
The project is a partnership between American Retroworks, a women’s cooperative in Fronteras, the Valenzuela family and the Cochise County Learning Advisory Council.
Valenzuela, who resides in Fronteras municipality, has been responsible for getting the necessary licenses and permits and dealing with legal matters for the project.
Initially, the facility refurbished and recycled computers only from colleges and government buildings within Sonora. About six months ago, it started handling an average of two trailer loads of electronics per six weeks, such as computers and televisions, from recyclers in Arizona, but not Cochise County.
Americans are increasingly discarding old televisions as they prepare for the transition from analog to digital broadcast in the United States slated for February. But those old TVs can still serve a purpose in other parts of the world.
Workers in Fronteras dismantle burned-out televisions and computers and separate the parts into plastic, metal and glass. The materials get transported back to the United States, and some are exported for reuse, with piece parts such as plastic shipped to Hong Kong and cathode ray tube glass sent to Malaysia.
Ingenthron hopes to supply the CRT glass, which contains lead, to mining company Grupo Mexico for use in the smelting process in Nacozari, Son., which is about 35 miles south of Fronteras. Discussions are under way for the refining of copper and precious metals from electronic circuits there.
The workers also are trained to repair televisions and computers. A fixed television, for example, could end up in Peru or Senegal. In the next year, plans call for locating a subsidiary plant from Malaysia in Fronteras for refurbishing and assembly of monitors and TVs.
The operation in Fronteras is not permitted to sell any of the items in Mexico. But a functioning computer can be transported to Douglas and then sold at American Retroworks Incorporated’s warehouse there, said Rohrbach, president of the Cochise County Learning Advisory Council, which refurbishes secondhand computers to be used in communities.
“The partnership we have right now is one in which the flow of computers that will pass through Douglas into Fronteras and back will give my nonprofit a great deal of flexibility in terms of getting equipment we can use in the digital divide program,” he said.
Ingenthron, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, Africa, from 1984-86, is a strong believer in the practice of repair and reuse. He incorporated American Retroworks in 2001. Then, in 2003, he founded Good Point Recycling, an electronics recycling facility in Middlebury, Vt. He now has 20 employees.
“I always wanted to maximize reuse of every item we take apart here in Vermont, but I can’t afford to do it and pay staff $8.50 an hour. But in Mexico, where there are people without jobs who would like to make $10 a day, it suddenly changes the equation,” he said.
The staff members in Fronteras get paid about $500 a month, including benefits, which is considered a living wage. Valenzuela said the members of the cooperative also own 50 percent of the shares of the Mexican corporation. Because the workers are owners, they participated in determining their own compensation.
Six to eight people are employed there on a regular basis, although that number is expected to increase significantly. The workers at the factory, who are partners in the endeavor, believe they are fortunate to be employed.
Virginia Ponce Mercado, 56, said the creation of employment opportunities is important because one of her daughters who is living as an illegal immigrant in the United States would come home to Fronteras if she could get a job there.
“My hope is this work will allow her to be here with us,” she said.
Maria Dolores Cota Tarazon, 62, a widow, said jobs in Fronteras basically do not exist for people her age. Her late husband left behind a small hotel to rent out, but she earns no income from it.
“I have been waiting for years to have this job (in the factory),” she said.
Ingenthron said some recyclers ship old televisions overseas, where the reusable tubes are remanufactured, but the unusable ones are just dumped. He said he is focused on protecting the environment by making sure all the CRT glass is put to use.
The Cochise County Learning Advisory Council developed a program over the past few years that led to the collection of electronic equipment on Earth Day in Sierra Vista and Bisbee and at the county’s transfer station. Rohrbach hopes to use the warehouse in Douglas as a collection site in the future.