EcoATM Kiosks Turn Old Cell Phones and iPods Into Cash

ecoatmimage4.jpgMore than 80 percent of the televisions, computer products and cell phones that reached the end of their life in 2007 were disposed of, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with most of them getting tossed into landfills. Only 18 percent of the 2.25 million tons of electronic products were recycled. There are a lot of reasons for those numbers, but the primary cause is, I suspect, convenience. It's just so much easier to toss your old cell phone into the garbage than it is to figure out how to dispose of it properly. But what if you could nudge people, Cass Sunstein-style, to do the right thing?

Enter ecoATM, a San Diego, Calif.-based start-up that is building kiosks for consumer electronics. Just like the Coinstar machine at your local grocery store or the Redbox movie rental location where you pick up and drop off DVDs to watch at home, ecoATM has designed a unit that accepts electronics and spits out cold, hard cash (or you can choose to receive a coupon or gift card or to donate your return to a charitable organization). See the image at right to get an idea of what the machine looks like.

For the past 18 months or so, there have only been about a dozen ecoATMs in the field, most based around the company's headquarters. But thanks to a $14.4 million round of financing completed earlier this month, ecoATM is preparing for rapid expansion. "Our plan is to add hundreds of machines over the next year and then thousands the following year," Anita Giani, ecoATM's media contact told me over e-mail.

The idea is simple: You're going to visit the grocery store anyway. If you know you're going to get some money back, there's an incentive to dig that old cell phone out from the junk drawer in which you've been hoarding all of your outdated electronics. Grab it and toss it in your bag when you head out the door. The next time you encounter an ecoATM, toss the product into the machine and wait a few seconds while, in real time, the machine searches to see how much the product is worth on secondary markets. "[W]e perpetually scour, compare, and adjust pricing to be competitive with all varieties of competition including the specialized web buy-back site and POS buy-back systems," Giana wrote. "On a majority of phone models we actually offer higher prices than any existing competitors."

Phones, right now, are ecoATM's focus, along with iPods. The company, Giani assured me, has successfully trialed the collection of video games, tablet PCs, laptop computers and eReaders over the past 18 months. "We will add categories as appropriate and as our technology roadmap allows but the eventual goal is to provide a one-stop system for all types of electronics and eWaste," Giani wrote.

As the company grows and the number of kiosks deployed multiplies, we could eventually see targeted systems that are specially tailored to the location in which they reside. "It is possible that we could configure specific features for specific store settings," Giani wrote. "For example, ink cartridge take-back in an office supply store but not in a mall setting. Or game take-back in a mall but not in an office supply setting." For now, though, this is at the bottom of ecoATM's to-do list. Before any tailoring is done, the company needs to reach a critical size where potential customers are aware of the kiosks and think twice before tossing out their old gadgets.

Image: An ecoATM kiosk.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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