Recycling a Phone at EcoATM Is an Easy Route To Feeling Green

Xconomy Seattle — 

I’ve been standing at an EcoATM in the Pacific Place mall in Seattle for about four minutes, when the machine that promises to pay cash for phones, MP3 players, and tablets suddenly tells me something that makes me feel better about myself.

“An average of three tons of toxic mining waste is generated just to get the small amount of precious metals needed to create a new mobile device,” the EcoATM kiosk says, as it scans my silver BlackBerry World Edition. “By reselling or recycling your mobile device, you are helping stop that toxic mess from being created.”

The smartphone, whose trackball last glowed for a game of Brick Breaker several years ago, was collecting dust in a rat’s nest of old cords and chargers, along with half a dozen other phones, MP3 players, and laptops. EcoATM estimates that most Americans have five or six old cell phones kicking around somewhere; less than 12 percent of the 141 million mobile devices that reached end-of-life in 2009 were recycled, according to widely cited EPA statistics.

Lately we’ve brought you several reports about ways to deal with obsolete devices, including my visit last month to an e-waste recycling facility in Seattle, and articles on services such as Boston-based Gazelle and Irving, TX-based eRecycling Corps, all of which compete with EcoATM’s 1,000-some kiosks nationwide for phones and other equipment that still may have some residual value. Device manufacturers themselves are also ramping up their recycling and repurchasing programs.

But there’s plenty of work to go around: EcoATM says it has recycled 2 million devices so far, and it estimates the size of the global recycled-mobile-device market at $5 billion annually.

Xconomy has covered the company’s beginnings in a Del Mar, CA, Starbucks in 2008 and traced its journey through to its $350 million acquisition last summer by Bellevue, WA-based Outerwall. Recently, I decided to try the service myself to see how easy it would be to turn an old phone into cash.

Convenience and immediacy are EcoATM’s main advantages over the competition, the company’s director of communications Ryan Kuder says. The kiosks are typically located in malls or other high-foot-traffic areas where people are going anyway. There’s no shipping or dealing with online auctions. There’s certainty about the price you’ll receive for your device right then and there. And you are paid cash, whereas many device manufacturers and mobile carriers may offer only credit in the store or toward an upgrade.

It’s that promise of an on-the-spot payment that may give some thieves—and politicians in a couple of cities—the idea that an EcoATM machine is an easy place to turn stolen devices into cash. But judging from my experience, it’s the last place an actual thief would want to show his face.

“EcoATM requires identification information when recycling a device to protect victims of theft and to help law enforcement,” the machine tells me moments after I begin the process.

“EcoATM protects the environment, and your local community,” it intones a few moments later. “To sell a device, you must be 18 years of age, present a valid, government-issued photo idea, and provide a thumbprint. Your ID will be verified remotely by a human, and your device will be matched against a stolen-device database. We work closely with law enforcement to pursue criminal action for stolen items or other fraud.”

A sign with a gold sheriff’s badge on the outside of the machine reiterates the message even more bluntly: “EcoATM will report any persons attempting fraud or selling stolen property at this kiosk to local law-enforcement.”

This is a key point for the company, Kuder says. Last year, Riverside, CA, and Baltimore, MD, banned the kiosks for fear that they would facilitate smartphone theft. But Kuder thinks the cities misunderstand how its system works. EcoATM does not allow anonymous transactions, as the signs, dialogue, and cameras on the kiosks make clear. The company collaborates with law enforcement; it hosted a two-day summit focused on phone theft in December. It returns any lost or stolen phones that end up in its machines to their rightful owners at the company’s expense. And the company provides police with information about the illicit sellers, allowing them to make arrests, Kuder says.

The EcoATM scans my driver’s license. Then it reminds me that the device should be deactivated with my carrier, and cleared of any sensitive data. (The company and its recycling and resale partners wipe data from devices, too, but only after a 30-day holding period. That way, if a device does come up lost or stolen, it can be returned largely intact, Kuder says.)

Next comes the cool technology part of EcoATM. The kiosks use machine vision, electronic diagnostics, and artificial intelligence to identify and assess devices.

The machine prints out a small sticker with a QR code and asks me to affix it to the back of the device. Then the brushed metal door of the machine slides open, revealing a well-lighted testing bay with a glass floor.

Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

I’m instructed to place the device in the center, face up. The door slides shut. (“Don’t worry. You can get it back at any time during the process by touching the cancel button. I won’t harm it in any way,” the EcoATM assures me.)

As the machine scans the device, I get more factoids on the environmental costs of our gadget-obsessed lives.

“Used phones contain toxic stuff like cadmium and mercury that can get into our water system if thrown into a landfill,” the kiosk tells me.

The kiosk doesn’t correctly ID my old BlackBerry right off the bat. But it gets close and provides a short list of possibilities—it can recognize more than 4,000 devices, with the iPhone 4 being the most commonly recycled. I select the right one.

Now for the disappointing news. There’s no market for this device, the machine informs me.

“Sorry, I can’t pay you for this device, but I can donate $1 to one of the charities below if you decide to recycle it,” the EcoATM says.

I went through the process again, this time putting a still functional HTC Droid Incredible 2, one of the best phones I’ve ever owned, into the testing bay. It was hard to replace it last November and I felt pangs of sadness as I contemplated parting with it.

The EcoATM did a more thorough inspection of this device and determined that it could indeed pay me for it. It had me connect a cable for further testing. It took a few tries to properly position the device and the testing cable in the bay, and make sure the phone was unlocked. The EcoATM then had me input a code on the phone to allow it to read its serial number and check if it had been reported lost or stolen. I’m not totally sure if this actually worked because I never saw the serial number displayed on the phone’s screen, as the EcoATM said it would be.

“OK, I’m inspecting the device now,” the machine said. “This is my favorite part. I love finding a new home for old devices. I will search for the best price I can find.”

Meanwhile, more statistics: “There are nearly 6 billion mobile phone users worldwide. That is nearly 86 percent of the world’s population.”

The EcoATM judged my Incredible 2 to be in fair condition and offered me $3 for it. The same phone in perfect condition would have been worth $12. In a not-so-subtle nudge to sell, EcoATM noted that the estimated value of the device three months in the future would be $8.

I declined to sell because there were some files I still had to grab off the phone. I also held off on turning in the BlacBerry for recycling, but plan to do so soon.

I was at the EcoATM kiosk for about 20 minutes altogether, going through the process with the Incredible 2, the BlackBerry, and a feature phone I got in Kenya that also had zero residual value. If you weren’t trying to report on the process, I imagine you could move through it much quicker.

The reality is that in order for the system to work smoothly, and to maximize your potential payout, you need to do a few things before you get to the kiosk itself—removing any stickers and cases, and making sure your device can be powered on, is fully deactivated, and is free of personal data. But from there on, the process is convenient and easy enough.

And that’s key. The electronics industry has done a great job convincing us to upgrade our devices at shorter and shorter intervals. Now, we need to make recycling them the no-brainer choice.