Women's cooperative in Mexico tackles e-waste

Living on Earth

Vicki Ponce at work. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

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As you've no doubt heard, if you have an old TV and it's not hooked up to cable or satellite, you'll soon have no signal. American television is going digital. And you only have till June to buy a new TV – or a converter box.

But what about all those old TVs? In more and more places, it's not legal to dump them in a landfill. But as Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet discovered – some of them go South of the border to a group of very determined women, environmentally responsible women.

"We brought in 37 pallets of monitors: Seventy-one monitors from China, 160 from Japan, Philippines, five from Hong Kong, and one from Finland. Net weight 11 tons."

That's Mariano Huchim with Retroworks Mexico, a small electronics recycling startup. And from the loading dock those eleven tons of TVs and computers swiftly make their way here to this workbench where, on any given day, four to eight women stand, taking them apart.

Maria Dolores Cota, or Doña Loli, as her coworkers call her, says she's very grateful to have this job, because she went a long time without one.

"We got the opportunity to work! And we are older--we didn't have the slightest hope. In Mexico there was NO hope for us to work."

Lidia Barreda, takes apart a TV next to her, and chimes in.

"It's really true because 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."

There have been few jobs here in the town of Fronteras ever since a Levelor blinds factory closed. So about three years ago a group of women, in their 50s, decided to organize. They invited a local rancher who speaks English, Alice Valenzuela, to join them and asked for her help. Soon after, Alice ran into a business owner from Vermont. He runs an electronics recycling company and was looking to expand. She tried to persuade him to do it in Fronteras. Some in town were skeptical.

"Everybody said the women's cooperative would never make it. We we had no money and no contacts so we would never find a building in which to put a business. We would never find an investor who would want to come to a town with dirt streets and no infrastructure."

But the Vermont recycler, American Retroworks Inc., did partner with them. And local officials lent them the old Levelor blinds building. Next thing they knew, these older, unemployed women from a small town in northern Mexico were on their way to Vermont to learn the e-waste trade.

Since then, the economy has taken a dive. But the owner of Retroworks in Vermont has told the women he'll stick with them, and that wins him their undying allegiance.

Doña Loli says, "He says he really cares about us. He says we're his family. I mean, who are we, really? But for him, we are somebody."

Fully trained, the group began organizing roundups of old electronics across southern Arizona, then trucked the goods here to take apart. People in town started calling them las chicas bravas, the tough girls.

Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."

PRI's coverage of social entrepreneurship is supported by the Skoll Foundation.