'I hate it when you call me a scrapman. This is an engineering business'

I am the kind of old-fashioned soul who can't bear to throw anything away. But I am also a gadgety sort of nerd. I am caught between loving old friends, and longing for new ones.

Bar a letter "R" which sticks, my dear old Amstrad desk-top computer is in fine heart. It has handled and stored, without breakdown, about 2 million words since it began, five years and about 5,000 running hours ago, to sit on this desk overlooking the village street.

I now face a dilemma. I have been offered a far more modern machine for pounds 100. The new machine (redundant to the glossy organisation which owns it, but a fantastic treat to me) has a huge memory and is very fast. My Amstrad is, I fear, headed for the scrapheap. Or rather, it is probably going to be deconstructed by Ray Mann, an extraordinary businessman near Ross-on-Wye.

Though I have become pretty sure that most plastics should end their lives making heat in municipal incinerators, Ray is proving that there is another option. Thousands of computers pour into his works every day, and get taken apart, as plastics represent about 60 per cent of the value of all the recyclable material in computers, faxes and photocopiers.

"I hate it when you call me a scrapman," he says. "This is an engineering business." To prove it, he takes me to the infra-red spectrometer with which he can pinpoint the precise make-up of the plastic parts of practically every machine in a modern office. He treats the provenance of plastics the way forensic scientists looks at fingerprints. When he sends ground- up plastic to Bayer (his main customer), they know they can reintegrate the granules in their production of new plastics with no fear of contamination. Almost all the other bits and pieces get recycled and some parts are reused.

Whether it makes the ultimate ecological sense to send scrap plastic back to Germany is not entirely the point: markets much nearer home will presumably open up, once the pioneering Germans have shown the way.

I wittered on to Ray about how the Third World ought to be able to use this gear, intact. I regaled him with stories about the electrical repair industry of Egypt. Some of the items one sees being repaired in Cairo are so old that they're fit to be reimported to the West as curios. Ray was dismissive: why send poor people streams of highly heterogeneous machinery, all of it of an age when it is prone to break down, and likely to be loaded with ancient software?

But his best argument was that the charities which might send redundant computers abroad would be better off begging firms to disgorge the old machinery cluttering up the corridors of their premises. The charities could then pass the stuff on to Ross-on-Wye.

Mann Industries doesn't pay for these machines. Instead, it logs them in and gives its suppliers an account of the money value that the scrapmen/engineers have retrieved from the units. Mann makes its money by charging a percentage of the final value. A charity bringing in old crocks could earn good money from Mann, and then fund people in the Third World to buy new computers. This process would have the merit that, at small ecological price, the West can indulge its passion for constant improvement and solve the waste problem that fashion-victimhood causes, while the Third World computer- nut could be turned into a customer, reinforcing an indigenous computer firm in his or her own country.

I can't see what could be wrong with this counter-intuitive wheeze, marrying ecological good sense with compassion. It reminds me of the slogan of a Yorkshire knacker's yard: "Old favourites painlessly destroyed." Only, Mr Mann holds out the prospect of their being reborn, which is better.

Comments