Diane Mastrull: Discarded electronics led to a bright idea

John Martorano founded Magnum Computer Recycling in Camden County in 2006.
John Martorano founded Magnum Computer Recycling in Camden County in 2006. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 02, 2013

John Martorano Jr. spends each day amid pallets heaped with junked computer towers and monitors, burned-out TVs, vacuums past their sucking prime, and old police scanners that have squawked for the last time.

Recycling electronic waste is this South Jersey entrepreneur's preoccupation, one that took root in far different environs: in the meadows and forests of the Medford Wildlife Management Area, as he was accompanied by his dog at the time, Archie, on a tranquil walk.

Tranquil, that is, until Martorano's blood started to boil about something on the cedar-lined trail.

"I noticed a white pile," he said, recalling that fall day nearly eight years ago. "As I was getting closer, it became clear it was a pile of discarded computer monitors. Some bozo concluded it was cheaper to dump it in the woods than pay to dispose of it properly."

Once his outrage subsided, his business instincts kicked in: "A lightbulb went off that there must be a demand for this type of service."

"It was a compact fluorescent," he joked.

He formed Magnum Computer Recycling in 2006. New Jersey required electronics recycling five years later, and Pennsylvania seven years later, making disposal in a landfill a no-no - and proving Martorano's hunch about a promising niche market.

Then again, the 52-year-old Audubon, Camden County, resident seems to have emerged from the womb with a start-up-business gene.

For three summers in the 1980s, Martorano drove a motorized Cushman cart selling water ice in Philadelphia's Juniata Park section for a friend's father's company. In 1988, he opened his own company, Koolzit Italian Ices, basing it in a South Philadelphia garage and serving "the best corners" of Center City with pushcarts.

He eventually expanded to a storefront operation, and was a wholesale supplier to mom-and-pop stores before street-vendor laws changed and Martorano couldn't get enough corners. He sold his operation to a South Jersey company, then started another business.

This time, it was a lighting company that also distributed commercial cleaning products and coffee. Started in 1997, Magnum Industries Inc. did well, benefiting from the surging demand for energy-efficient lighting. Martorano said he sold the company to an employee in 2005.

Then came his nature hike and creation of Magnum Computer Recycling and its parent company, Thanks for Being Green L.L.C., with headquarters in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Westville.

Again, timing proved fortunate. Even though New Jersey and Pennsylvania had not yet mandated e-waste recycling, counties and towns had begun encouraging it as the right thing to do for the environment - and for their budgets. The more items eliminated from municipal waste streams headed to landfills or incinerators, the lower a town's dumping expenses.

For Cherry Hill, that's $61 a ton at the incinerator in Camden, said Chris Higgins, the township's recycling coordinator. The municipality is among the region's most prodigious recyclers, collecting 119 tons in 2012, up from 19.5 tons in 2008, the first year Cherry Hill contracted with Magnum, he said.

Magnum has handled 500,000 pounds so far, Martorano said, adding: "That's a lot for a township."

Given an industry in which anyone with a pickup truck and a strong back might call himself a recycler but might not necessarily have reputable methods, Martorano was attractive on two levels, Higgins said. First was his passion for the business: "He saw a niche there and wanted to do something about it, and he did."

Also important to Higgins: Martorano secured two stringent environmental- and performance-management certifications, R2 and ISO 14001. That was critical to Cherry Hill officials, who want to make sure any e-waste collected "goes to the right place - not overseas or in a field somewhere," Higgins said.

As word-of-mouth translated into more towns doing business with Magnum, Martorano decided to move to larger space on Sept. 1: a warehouse/office facility on Central Highway in Pennsauken that is more than twice the size of the Westville site.

With 14 employees, the company handled 6.4 million pounds of e-waste in 2012, for $1.3 million in gross income, Martorano said. A complete computer, which weighs 23 pounds, yields 70 cents a pound net profit, he said.

The next market Martorano wants to conquer is Philadelphia, where e-waste education among residents and businesses is lacking, he said, and collection potential is strong.

But with TVs more headache than they're worth because "you have to pay to get rid of leaded glass - it's a huge problem in the U.S.," Martorano said, he wants to cap the company's consumer-electronics stream where it is now and concentrate on building the business-to-business portfolio.

"B-to-B is what pays the bills," he said.

Though the industry frustrates him at times, especially manufacturers that don't make good on take-back programs, serial entrepreneur Martorano said he plans to stick with this line of work, with a goal of getting e-waste totals up to 10 million pounds within five years and offering employees an ownership stake.

Even with fluctuating market prices for iron and copper and technological advancements that continually reduce the precious metals used in computer motherboards, it's a fulfilling business, he said.

"I'm glad I went on that walk," he said of his hike in Medford eight years ago. "It was life-changing."

Diane Mastrull:

Diane Mastrull writes about a Wissinoming cheesesteak shop and its new name at philly.com/steaks

Diane Mastrull:

Computers, video games, and more. John Martorano Jr. lists his recycling site's collection. Go to www.philly.com/mastrull

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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