EcoATM has come up with an eponymous device, now in more than 150 U.S. stores and malls, that uses artificial intelligence to identify 4,000 mobile devices and assess their condition before offering cash for them.
by Wendy Koch, USA TODAY
As cellphone sales take off, so too are recycling options for used gadgets, including a robotic ATM that uses artificial intelligence to dispense cash for mobile devices.
EcoATMs, now appearing in more than 165 malls and grocery stores nationwide and likely twice as many by year's end, can identify a device and assess its condition before offering a price for it. Consumers can choose cash or donate all or part of the amount to a charity of their choice.
"It's cash on the spot," says Mark Bowles, founder of San Diego-based ecoATM, a company that developed its technology partly through grants from the National Science Foundation.The kiosk determines a device's value, once it's connected via a cable, by testing its screen, buttons and other functions. It spits out greenbacks -- up to $200 for an iPhone 4 -- after a driver's license is inserted to prove the device wasn't stolen and the owner is at least 18 years old. Three-quarters of the phones are refurbished and resold.
His reverse vending machine reflects the booming market for recycling electronics -- or e-cycling -- that's been transformed by the proliferation of cellphones, often replaced every 18 months.
"They're smaller and lighter so they're easier to collect ... and consumers turn them over more quickly," says Walter Acorn of the Consumer Electronics Association. Plus, he says they contain valuable components such as copper, silver and gold. "Entreprenerus are stepping in to pay for that value."
-- Buy-back programs. Companies, including YouChange, Recellular, YouRenew, BuyMyTronics, MaxBack and Gazelle, pay cash for used devices and provides prepaid postage for mailing them. Apple and Best Buy as well as wireless carriers, including Verizon and AT&T, offer store credit for usable phones.
-- Charitable options. Cell Phones for Soldiers refurbishes and sells old phones, using the proceeds to buy calling cards for U.S. troops overseas. March of Dimes uses such cash for medical research on birth defects and infant mortality. Recycling for Charities and Eco-Cell accept donated devices to benefit an array of causes.
-- Drop-off locations. Most electronics retailers, including Staples and Radio Shack, don't pay for broken phones but will accept them for recycling. Others, including Target and Lowe's, have in-store recycling bins.
"It's great there are options for people to sell or donate their stuff" and thus keep them out of landfills, says Barbara Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which promotes responsible recycling. Still, she says consumers should find out where their old devices are going, because many are sold to poor countries that trash unused parts, some of which contain hazardous materials such as lead that can leach into the ground or water.
Kyle recommends recyclers, listed on e-Steward.org, that have pledged not to export to developing countries.
What bothers Jennifer Berry of Earth 911, a company that runs a directory of recycling programs, is how few cellphones are recycled despite all the options. Only about 11% were recycled in 2010, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That pales in comparison to the 40% rate for computers.
"People just don't like to recycle their cellphones," Berry says. She adds that people stockpile up to 75% of obsolete ones in drawers.
"Who doesn't?" asks Shamah Kamon, a saleswoman at Teavana in Fairfax, Va., who has a few stashed at home. She says a customer was thrilled to cash in five old phones for $50 from the ecoATM near her store.
"It's a great idea," says Ken Vargas, a shopper checking out the machine. He didn't sell his phone, because he says it offered $70 to $100 less than a likely Craigslist price. Still, he was impressed with ecoATM's convenience and "tech-friendly innovation."