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New Business Model Transforms E-scrap for Good

RP Siegel | Wednesday February 17th, 2010 | 6 Comments

Imagine a world where nothing is wasted, where there are no landfills and where all citizens pitch in to help—a world where discarded items are picked up at curbside, turned into gold, which is then distributed to those most in need. Sounds like a fairy tale or a utopian dream, doesn’t it?

Well, the folks at Imagine It in Rochester, NY have put all the pieces together to make this happen with their Fundraising Through Recycling program. The idea started back in 2002 when founder Carlie Albano decided to raise money for a local charity and was looking for something different; she hit upon the idea of collecting ink cartridges and then selling them to recyclers, passing the proceeds along to her intended recipient. Setting up shop in her garage with her grandfather working along beside her; she conceived the idea that has grown to become Imagine It.

It seems that she stumbled upon a really big idea.

Did you know that every second:
•    8 printer cartridges are thrown away.
•    2.5 ounces of oil are used to produce each inkjet cartridge
•    3.5 quarts of oil to make each laser cartridge.

In a couple of months, cartridge remanufacturing will, according to Imagine It, save more oil than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

“Many people find it easier to donate the empty ink cartridges than giving cash,” says Kimie Romeo, who recently left her position as Environmental Coordinator at Sunnking Electronics Recycling,  a leading player in upstate NY’s booming E-scrap market, so that she could get more involved in realizing Imagine It’s dreams. She and Albano have been friends for years and Romeo had been always been helping her out.

“In the last four years, we have collected tens of thousands of pounds of electronics which has resulted in roughly one million dollars going back into the local community. This is something I never could have done on my own. Before this, it was all I could do to buy Girl Scout cookies before I was tapped out.” During her tenure at Sunnking, Romeo had the opportunity to substantially grow their E-scrap program as well as to personally vet all of the downstream vendors, to make sure they all did everything they said they did. Sunnking has a multi-faceted program which, in additional to traditional recycling, includes a team of technicians that identify reusable items, repair and refurbish them and put them up for sale at a local storefront and on EBay.

Walking around in Imagine It’s warehouse facility, with its mountains of printer cartridges and crates filled with cell phones, laptops, ink cartridges, and so on, gives one the feeling of standing on the forest floor where everything that lands there is broken down to become food for a diverse array of creatures ranging from tiny organisms to big  trees.

With Imagine It, Sunnking, and RIT’s National Center for Remanufacturing & Resource Recovery–all of which are in close proximity–you could say Rochester has become a hotbed of innovation in the area of remanufacturing and recycling, both in terms of business models as well as technology. Local efforts underway include processes that potentially enable the environmentally-sound collection of CRT monitors by separating the lead from the glass, as well as new processes for depolymerization–a holy grail among plastics recyclers that will enable co-mingled plastics to be broken down and separated into their constituent parts.

Imagine It has developed recyclable cardboard kiosks that can be placed in local gathering spots where people can conveniently drop off their used cartridges. The merchants get to choose which of the more than 500 participating charities will receive the proceeds. Imagine It will arrange to pick up the cartridges on a regular basis.

Of course, Imagine It is not the only one to recognize the fact that there is gold in them thar’ cartridges. Staples and Office Max has also begun giving out store credit in exchange for (certain brands of) empty cartridges brought in. But it’s hard to match the convenience or the righteous feeling of knowing that an empty cartridge can truly be good to the last drop.

RP Siegel is the Executive Director of Cool Rochester and the co-author, with Roger Saillant of the acclaimed sustainability thriller Vapor Trails.


▼▼▼      6 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • John Veenstra

    A good start to offsetting the systemic headache being pressed onto the consumer by greedy corporations – intentionally creating disposable components to create an ongoing revenue stream. The value of the ink in a typical cartridge is about twenty-five cents; by making a unique form factor, the manufacturer milks 50x cost from the end-user. Whatever you can get away with is the defacto mantra.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ted-Kidd/648066453 Ted Kidd

    Very exciting. This also means I have a place to dump my old phones and ipods?

  • jimtappon

    I like the idea that I can turn in my ink cartridges and know that the profits involved in reselling them will be going to a specific non-profit which is helping educate the public about how to save energy and money in runing their household.
    I used to get $3 back from Staples, but now they supposedly put it on my account, but I have not seen anything on my account for the dozens that I have turned in in the past 9 months.

  • John Veenstra

    A good start to offsetting the systemic headache being pressed onto the consumer by greedy corporations – intentionally creating disposable components to create an ongoing revenue stream. The value of the ink in a typical cartridge is about twenty-five cents; by making a unique form factor, the manufacturer milks 50x cost from the end-user. Whatever you can get away with is the defacto mantra.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ted-Kidd/648066453 Ted Kidd

    Very exciting. This also means I have a place to dump my old phones and ipods?

    (John, look in the mirror – how do YOU feed your family? Who do you think “greedy corporations” are – some esoteric being? SOILANT GREEN IS PEOPLE dude, it's us. We have the choice NOT to purchase products that we feel are not beneficial to us. To buy a product then complain about “being ripped off” seems a bit hypocritical in a free society)

  • jimtappon

    I like the idea that I can turn in my ink cartridges and know that the profits involved in reselling them will be going to a specific non-profit which is helping educate the public about how to save energy and money in runing their household.
    I used to get $3 back from Staples, but now they supposedly put it on my account, but I have not seen anything on my account for the dozens that I have turned in in the past 9 months.