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Environmental Entrepreneurs: China’s Ecostar Puts Used Copy Machines Back to Work

A company selling refurbished photocopiers creates jobs while reducing electronic waste.

When Chinese entrepreneur Gao Guoqiang visited warehouses in the United States that stored endless stacks of discarded photocopiers, he saw past the piles of trash to a potential business opportunity. Mr. Gao realized that he could refurbish these copiers and sell them to small Chinese businesses at a fraction of the cost of a new copier. He also recognized that his business model could help address China’s growing electronic waste (e-waste) problem. “I decided to make a career out of this business for life, both from a commercial perspective and a social responsibility perspective,” said Mr. Gao.

Reducing E-Waste in China

China serves as a dumping ground for many of the world’s unwanted electronics. As consumers and businesses upgrade to new models, their discarded products are shipped to China, often illegally. It is cheaper to break down e-waste in China than it is in other parts of the world due to weaker regulations, but the lack of strict guidelines also means that dangerous chemicals and toxins end up in China’s water and air.

Mr Gao’s company, Ecostar, now holds the only license in China to import used copiers. For every 100 machines Ecostar refurbishes, the company reduces e-waste—which contains numerous highly toxic substances—by 20 tons. In 2010, Ecostar refurbished 25,000 copiers and reduced e-waste by 5,000 tons. Refurbishing an Ecostar copier is also more water-efficient, as Ecostar’s refurbishment process requires only half the amount of water as production of a new copier.

“We have had customers come to us and tell us that their lives have been completely changed by our low-cost machines.”

---Gao Guoqiang

Creating Economic Opportunities

Ecostar is able to sell its refurbished copiers for approximately 1/3 to 1/5 the price of a new copier. This affordable pricing not only gives Ecostar a competitive advantage, but also allows the company’s customers to access an essential business tool. According to Mr. Gao, China’s 100,000 printing shops and 600,000 shops that specialize in express digital copying are mostly small businesses that would like to meet China’s growing demandfor color and digital printed products. High equipment costs and lack of access to credit often means they struggle to do so. Ecostar’s low-priced copiers provide a solution.

“We have had customers come to us and tell us that their lives have been completely changed by our low-cost machines,” said Mr. Gao. One of Ecostar’s customers began his copy shop in 2003, and ultimately bought 20 refurbished copiers. He now owns two shops with revenues exceeding $1.5 million each year. Ecostar has created thousands of job opportunities in China, both within its own company and by jumpstarting its customers’ businesses.

Investment for Growth

<p>Gao Guoqiang, founder of Ecostar</p>

Gao Guoqiang, founder of Ecostar

As demand for color digital printing in China continues to increase, so do the opportunities for Ecostar. The company's only competitors are illegal importers of photocopiers. Ecostar obviously holds an advantage over these peers with its reputation for quality products and customer service and strong brand recognition. As a result of its success in its home market, Ecostar is also looking to scale its business by moving into overseas markets.

In order to take advantage of these growth opportunities, Ecostar needs investment. Mr. Gao will travel to New York City in April for the New Ventures Global Investor Forum, where he will have the opportunity to present Ecostar’s business model to a group of international investors. He hopes to secure additional investment for his expansion plans. The company's growth potential is strong; while the annual growth rate for photocopier sales is 10-13% in China, Ecostar's annual growth rate currently exceeds 50 percent. For every additional photocopier Ecostar refurbishes, one less copier ends up in China's e-wasteland.

Gao Guoqiang will be attending the New Ventures Global Investor Forum: Green Opportunities in Tomorrow’s Markets in New York City on April 6 along with five other innovative New Ventures environmental entrepreneurs. Whether you are looking for a potential investment deal or hope to be inspired by the power of entrepreneurship to help solve our environmental challenges, join us for the Global Investor Forum. Visit the New Ventures website for more information and registration information.

Special thanks to all of our event sponsors and in particular our Gold Sponsors Alcoa Foundation and Fundación AVINA.

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