Finding a future in recycled electronics

Virginia (Vicki) Ponce uses tin snips on an old television set. She dismantles 12 of these a day.

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Tess Vigeland:The global economy is about more than big conglomerates and multinationals. When you boil it down, it's about a single person, doing a job, trying to get by.

Today in our series WORKING, the entrepreneurial spirit turns our unwanted waste into someone else's treasure. The EPA says that only 18% of the used electronics in this country are recycled. One woman in northern Mexico looked across the border at the growing pile of junk and saw an opportunity for her town. Ingrid Lobet has our profile.


INGRID LOBET: Vicki Ponce stands in front of a mountain of shattered TV carcasses and pries a big piece of copper off the back of a picture tube.

VICKI PONCE: The moment of truth!

Each day Vicki bends over this workbench with a small group of women and dismantles TVs and computers collected across southern Arizona.

PONCE:My friend is taking apart this TV. The first screws you take out are on the top.

Getting this job was a major struggle. But Vicki says it's not like life had been easy before. For four years, she and her husband had no steady work.

PONCE:We were selling tamales on the street. Sometimes we even crossed the border to clean houses.

There just aren't many jobs here in Fronteras, 45 minutes south of the Arizona border. And what jobs there are, says Vicki's friend Lidia Barreda, don't go to women like them, in their 50s and 60s.

LIDIA BARREDA: Here in Mexico there's a lot of discrimination against people who are older. After the age of 35, it's hard to get a job. It's not like in the United States where older people keep on working.

So hard up, and fed up, three years ago Vicki and several other women here vowed to figure out how to bring more jobs to Fronteras. And they called on a friend with connections in the US, a local rancher, named Alice Valenzuela. They asked her to help.

ALICE VALENZUELA: Everybody said the women's cooperative would never make it. We would never find a building, we had no money and no contacts. We would never find an investor who would want to locate in a town with no streets and no infrastructure.

But soon Alice Valenzuela made a contact--the owner of a Vermont recycling company called Retroworks. The company was looking to expand, and agreed to do it here in Fronmteras. So the women traveled to Vermont and learned the e-waste business. Now Vicki can give the name and value of every part of a computer.

PONCE: We sort these parts into different barrels. They each contain different metals. These right here contain a lot of gold. We send these to Malaysia.

Thanks to contacts they got from Retroworks Vermont, the Mexico startup now sells parts to Egypt, Malaysia and Florida. They work out of this huge abandoned warehouse they convinced local officials to lend them.

Yet sixteen months after they moved in and started taking things apart, there's still no electricity. The mayor told the utility not to turn it on. He's been their biggest foe. Vicki and the others have their suspicions why.

PONCE:Probably it's because we haven't made any contributions to him. Or it could be that he hates us because we stood up for ourselves.

Vicki and many others here in Fronteras believe their startup would've moved more quickly if they were willing to pay bribes, but they're not. Vicki says she may not have much, but she's got her reputation.

PONCE:We want everything clean. We want to hold our heads up, we don't want people to say we were involved in anything shady.

Paying bribes she says, would also reinforce a negative view of her country.

PONCE:We want foreign investors to know that we're operating honestly.

Because Vicki has plans. Retroworks Mexico is still tiny, only 10 employees. But she wants to bring many more jobs here.

PONCE:We want to make it grow big, so there's a job here for anyone who wants to work. So we can all live, maybe not in luxury, but with dignity.

In the meantime, with no electricity, they press on with hand tools-- screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches and wire-cutters.

PONCE: If we had an air gun! Our hands wouldn't be cramping up.

This isn't one of those overseas electronics chops shops you may have heard about. People using blowtorches to melt down metals. Vicki and the others run this place themselves. So they're safety-conscious. They only take apart and sort, protected by gloves and mostly not wearing their goggles because they're all over 40.

PONCE:We need our glasses to see the screws! We only put on goggles when we break glass.

Vicki says this long fight to get Retroworks started has made her less timid. And less tolerant of the old way of doing business in Mexico. Like on her fourth trip to a government office for a customs permit, when they told her she'd have to come back a fifth time.

PONCE:I said we're not leaving here until you sign that paper. I said do these look like pretty hands with painted fingernails? No, you see the hands of a working woman. And people in our town need that paper so they can keep working.

Local people call them "las chicas bravas" -- the tough girls. One person who's seen them get tougher is Marco Antonio Armendariz, a legal advocate. On a visit to his office Vicki and he reminisce about when the chicas first called him for help.

MARCO ANTONIO ARMENDARIZ: They were terrified... They didn't know their rights.

The mayor of Fronteras was threatening to evict them, saying the building wasn't really theirs.

ARMENDARIZ: They didn't know the mayor didn't have the authority to kick them out.

And then he turns to Vicki with a bombshell.

ARMENDARIZ:Someone called and offered me $20,000 to tell you that you had no case, that you had to vacate the building and stop pushing.

He speculates the chicas may have fouled up someone's plans to use the building for something illegal, like stashing drugs..

ARMENDARIZ:Maybe they'll be the first business to ever get set started in Mexico without paying a single bribe.

When she's not at work, Vicki is most often at her woodstove, cooking. It's the hearth of the two-bedroom home she shares with her husband Antonio.

Vicki and Antonio have two grown daughters in Arizona. The girls used to send money home. But now their daughters have both lost their jobs, so Antonio says the parents are helping out their kids in the United States.

ANTONIO: The roles are reversed now. Instead of money coming from there to here, it's flowing from here to there. Laughs.

The small recycling enterprise is so successful that Vicki says one daughter keeps asking when she can return to Fronteras and get a job there.

PONCE:She says, Mami, hurry up with the plant, I want to come home and work there.

Nothing, Vicki says, would please her more.

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