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Friday, May 11, 2012

Tom Still: Madison businessman helps promote 'urban mining' at home, abroad

By Tom Still
Neil Peters-Michaud doesn't look much like a miner. He doesn't carry around a pickax or wear a hardhat, but he's uncovering deposits of gold, silver, copper and other minerals every day.

That's because Peters-Michaud is "mining" the growing, and increasingly valuable, stream of electronic waste that is a byproduct of the information age in the United States and worldwide. His story demonstrates how profit and recycling can go hand-in-hand.

Neil and his wife, Jessica, are co-founders of Cascade Asset Management, a company that sounds like it should be handling financial transactions. Instead, it processes a different kind of asset – old computers, monitors and other electronic hardware.

Founded in 1999, the company has plants in Madison and Indianapolis, employs about 70 people and has total revenues of about $6.5 million per year. It collects between 300 and 400 tons of computers, office electronics, consumer electronics and test equipment each month from sites across North America. That equipment is disassembled, wiped clean of data and "mined" for recoverable materials, which often include dangerous lead and mercury. Some equipment is refurbished and sold.

Cascade Asset Management, like many other U.S. companies in this field, has that process down to a science. That's not the case in much of the developing world, which has become a dumping ground for electronic equipment that is not always recycled with human and environmental safety in mind.

"There are good and bad recycling operations in every country, but in many places around the world, it's a serious problem," Peters-Michaud said. "It is usually boils down to economics – lower labor costs and environmental laws that encourage dumping."

Peters-Michaud has put his experience to work by helping establish high-tech recycling and refurbishing centers abroad, including a center near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he has traveled five times since 2007. Africa is a continent where tons of electronic equipment is shipped for disposal, but only a relative handful of centers exist to safely do the job.

The Ethiopian center is largely operational today and selling recycled materials, as well as refurbished computers. One buyer of used steel is about a mile from the plant.

"It's the most closed-loop recycling I've ever seen," Peters-Michaud said of the steel buyer.

A positive side-effect of the Ethiopian project is the spread of information technology in Ethiopia, which Peters-Michaud described as a "Communist country" in governance but which is slowly building a market-based economy.

"Access to information has been very interesting for the development of democracy there," he said.

China is another destination point for electronic waste, in part because that nation is clamoring for recycled materials of all types.

Container ships that unload finished goods in the United States are often filled – at bargain shipping prices – with used electronics equipment for shipment to China. It is an export business for the United States, actually reducing the trade imbalance with China, but Peters-Michaud believes that material could be put to better use at home.

"It would be to our advantage if more processing of these materials took place in the United States to generate clean material streams that could be used in innovative manufacturing processes here," he said. "The problem is that it would, at least short-term, cost more."

Then again, environmental costs in China and elsewhere are high. Investigators who have visited some non-U.S. waste sites witnessed men, women and children pulling wires from computers and burning them at night, fouling the air with carcinogenic smoke.

Other laborers, working with little or no protection, burned plastics and circuit boards or poured acid on electronic parts to extract silver and gold. Many smashed lead-laden cathode ray tubes from computer monitors. The results: Water and air poisoned by lead and mercury.

It's a problem that has attracted the attention of world organizations such as the International Business Leaders Forum, the World Bank and the United Nations, through which Peters-Michaud occasionally consults.

Entrepreneurs such as Peters-Michaud are using their expertise to teach others but also to keep a larger share of a growing business at home. The electronics industry has deep American roots; so should the emerging "urban mining" industry that recycles its waste.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. To learn more about e-waste recycling, visit Cascade Asset Management during a May 23 open house.


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