PITTSBURGH – In her native Malaysia, Mary Tiong developed a reputation for selling leftover computer monitors for a large manufacturer behind the industry's best-known brands. She earned a nickname: The Monitor Queen.
From her new base in Pittsburgh, Tiong continues to move large quantities of monitors. But now, she ships thousands of discarded models with computers back to Malaysia, where they are rebuilt and sold in poor countries, mostly in Southeast Asia.
Tiong, 41, says her company, Second Life Computer Remanufacturing, has environmental and philanthropic goals: It helps stem a rising tide of electronic waste in the United States and fulfills a need for basic computer equipment in the developing world.
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But she hopes to expand her operations by establishing a training program to teach local students how to rebuild aging computers, which often can be used for office work, Web surfing and e-mail — and saved from the scrap heap.
The program would create jobs and demonstrate that "somebody's junk is another person's treasure," Tiong said.
Her office is in a small warehouse jammed with monitors and PCs wrapped in plastic and stacked on wooden pallets.
The computers and monitors, some plucked from U.S. classrooms, law offices or pharmacies, might have been donated to or purchased by Tiong for $10 or less apiece.
"But I know that if you can make it work and get somebody to use it, the value is much better than a few dollars," she said.
Since 2005, Tiong's firm has sent 35 shipping containers to remanufacturing facilities in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia. One container holds as many as 2,000 computers, or between 800 and 1,000 monitors.
In Malaysia, workers test and repair the equipment, perhaps cracking open computers to replace parts or polishing monitor tubes and repainting their plastic cases in bright hues.
In many cases, the devices are returning to their country of origin — Malaysia. Tiong, who was born in Malaysia's Sarawak state on Borneo Island, says that gives her a unique perspective on the discarded technology.
"Because I'm from Asia ... I know where they come from," she said.
After working as a distributor for the Taiwanese electronic parts maker Lite-On Technology Corp., Tiong began traveling on her own to the United States in 1998.
She bought containers loaded with monitors and shipped them back to Malaysia, where she had a factory that rebuilt or refurbished them. She then sold the equipment to customers in Singapore, Russia and Papua New Guinea.
The following year, Tiong began dealing in computers as well, buying old PCs in Atlanta, Boston and San Francisco, among other cities. In 2000, she expanded to suppliers in Australia and, in 2004, to Canada.
She came to Pittsburgh in 2004 and formed Babylon Industries, the parent company of Second Life Computers. She said her company's revenue fluctuates, but that it probably averages about $500,000 annually.
The units are sent to schools and other customers in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Argentina; Tiong's distributors are hoping to tap into markets in Peru and South Africa.
Some equipment is sold at minimal cost — less than $100 — to rural villagers, she said. Some have been refurbished in Pittsburgh and donated to local schools.
Jim Rapoza, chief technology analyst for the publication eWeek, said "getting rid of old equipment is a big issue" for many businesses.
"Usually, you can't find anyone interested in buying this stuff," though the pace of computer techology has slowed enough that slightly older machines are still useful for many tasks, including Web surfing and e-mail, he said.
Tiong tries to avoid recycling — destroying the machines or breaking them down for parts — saying her mission is to restore them so they can be used by people who are unable to afford the latest technology.
She is not alone. Many U.S.-based groups collect and refurbish computers and send them abroad, according to Rob Zopf, vice president of operations at the National Cristina Foundation, a Greenwich, Conn.-based group that distributes donated computers to schools and charities across the country.
"The other side of the issue is there are people who collect equipment here in the U.S. [and] send it overseas in the name of reuse, although they're really sending it as a way of disposing of e-waste in a much less environmentally friendly way than one might like by taking components we might not want in our landfills and giving them to the Third World," he said.
Second Life says on its Web site that less than 1 percent of its refurbished equipment, 2 percent of its remanufactured equipment and 5 percent of its recycled equipment goes to the landfill.
Tiong said little is wasted because even small parts, such as chips, can be reused.