Jim Puckett has been at the center of negative stories about recycling companies for years. It's part of his job.
A founder of the Basel Action Network watchdog organization, Puckett has busted wrong-doing companies for years.
In January 2010, Puckett took part in a 60 Minutes investigation that exposed Executive Recycling in Colorado for shipping hazardous waste to China, despite telling customers it did not. Puckett traveled with correspondent Scott Pelley to Guiyu, China, where viewers saw poverty-stricken people using unsafe recycling methods while being paid abysmal wages.
That story was one of many that fueled the argument against recyclers exporting hazardous materials to developing countries. Since then, Executive Recycling has been indicted on fraud charges.
Puckett said Intercon Solutions in Chicago Heights could end up facing the same kinds of charges.
"It’s a similar case, if the feds wanted to take it up," Puckett said. "It’s even more egregious than what Executive was doing. They’re claiming to customers, erroneously, that they recycle in the States."
But Intercon CEO Brian Brundage is fighting back.
Brundage's biggest piece of evidence suggests Puckett was wrong when he said a container, photographed on Intercon's property, contained hazardous electronic waste. He also said it is possible Hong Kong government officials never opened the container in question before rejecting the shipment.
Gary Tam, Puckett's contact at the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department, responded to Patch inquiries about the container via email:
Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department inspected the container TGHU 9506276 on 5 May 2011 and waste cathode ray tubes and waste batteries were found inside the container. The import of such waste into Hong Kong was illegal and therefore the container was promptly returned to the US in May 2011 with due notification to the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) on 27 May 2011.
It appears government officials did indeed inspect the container before rejecting it, as the container number mentioned in Tam's email matches one photographed and referenced in Puckett's evidentiary report.
Hong Kong EPD has no information regarding who shipped the container. Intercon says it did not, but Puckett says that does not matter because selling hazardous waste to another company, who then exports it, is enough to violate the E-Stewards pledge.
Puckett and some former Intercon employees say the real crime Intercon committed was lying to its customers with promises of no exporting.
"They claim they don’t export and they don’t use landfills when, in fact, it appears that’s about all they do," Puckett said.
A former five-year Intercon employee, who declined to be identified, said he was shocked to find out he had been falsely telling customers the company does not export.
"We were told our company was the only one in North America that didn’t export anything beyond the U.S. borders," the ex-employee said. "We thought we were this holier than thou company, so green. Turns out that was not the case at all."
The former employee said Intercon told clients it never exported then turned around and sold materials to several U.S.-based companies known for exporting materials to other countries, including First America Metal Corporation in Minooka, IL. First America Metal's Website names the company as one of the largest exporters of scrap metal in the Midwest.
"By doing business with (First America Metal), we were in direct conflict with what we were telling the public we were doing," the employee said.
Brundage didn't see it the same way, and was open about his dealings with the Illinois exporter. "Have I worked with a company called First America Metal in the past? Yes. Am I allowed to work with First America? Yes. Are they fully licensed to do what they’re doing? Yes. That’s not the issue."
After hearing the claims of former employees, as well as Puckett, Brundage made a definitive statement about the way Intercon has marketed itself within the recycling industry.
"I’ve never said I don’t export," Brundage said. "A lot of people have thought that I say I don’t export. What I’ve always said is that we concentrate on a domestic recycling solution. That’s what we gear up to do. There are some items that might be better to go international, from a recycling perspective."
In the past Brundage has touted Intercon as a company that only does business with other domestic companies, as noted in a November 2010 article he wrote for Recycle Today:
Intercon Solutions recycles millions of pounds of material annually and, by sending that material to certified domestic manufacturers as raw materials, we are able to recycle 100 percent of the electronics we touch.
On May 27, 2011, the day Hong Kong EPD sent the container in question back to the United States, Earth911 published an article about Intercon, with the following description of its practices:
Even in the U.S., companies such as Intercon – that pledge to recycle 100 percent of materials and deal only with domestic processors – are the exception rather than the rule. Less stringent businesses may reclaim valuable metals and other materials, then dump the rest in landfills (where pollutants leak into the ground), if not sell it overseas.
Promotional flyers, provided by the ex-employee, include the phrases "we do not export waste to third world nations," and "absolutely no reselling, no remarketing, no landfilling and no incineration."
Brundage said the company has changed the verbiage in its promotional materials to better reflect its policies, but these past statements could raise questions about whether Intercon's customers knew where their materials were really going.
"I would never say there’s no way in hell we would ever export," Brundage said. "I remember when we were selling copper and brass to SiPi Metals in Chicago. SiPi Metals would melt that stuff down and export it. So technically I’m still exporting if it was my material, right? So why would I say that?"
Another former Intercon employee, who said he was with the company for more than six years, said he left the company after realizing Intercon was defrauding clients.
"When you tell your customer what you’re going to do, and you do the exact opposite just to make more money, you’d find it real hard to go to work in the morning," the former employee said.
The Other Accusations
Both former Intercon employees that were interviewed worked in sales and complained about the work conditions at the Heights company, claiming Brundage kept the happenings of the warehouse separate "as if he was hiding something." The former employees also noted an instance in which Intercon told a client it would de-manufacture its copying machines, but instead sold them whole to another company.
Brundage denied all of the accusations, writing them off as the rantings of disgruntled ex-employees.
"Why did they stay at Intercon for so many years?" Brundage said. "If they thought something wonky was going on, maybe they should have said something to me. . . In my 11 years of running this company, I've only had four employees speak negatively after leaving. I'd say that's pretty good, actually."
Since he sent the letter to Brundage last year, Puckett has maintained that he has no ill-feelings or motives against Intercon, noting that it would have been in BAN's best interest to approve the company for the E-Stewards Certification, mainly because certified businesses pay a regular fee to his organization.
"We would love to have Intercon as part of the program if they really qualified," Puckett said. "The incentives were all there."
Intercon can re-apply for the certification next year, and Puckett said he encouraged Brundage to do so, but after Intercon filed the lawsuit in state court, the gloves came off. BAN announced filing a federal counterclaim against Intercon Solutions on Sept. 4.
"Our goal is to get the truth," Pucket said. "They’re trying to muddy the waters here, in our view. We want clarity, and the best defense is a good offense."
On Thursday, Sept. 20: Read the next installment to learn more about the ensuing courtroom battle between Intercon and BAN. Also find out what some other former Intercon employees have to say about the company.
On Friday, Sept. 21: Patch concludes this series with a closer look at exporting in the recycling industry.
Intercon Flyer: An old flyer, provided by a former Intercon employee, detailing the companies promises to customers.