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Garbage Maven: Recycling cellphones at the ecoATM

May 11, 2012 |  7:44 am

EcoATMMachine_01Mobile devices are discarded more rapidly than any other type of electronics, yet only 11% of them are recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But something called an ecoATM is working to change that.

The ecoATM is a self-service kiosk that helps people dispose of cellphones and other mobile devices. The machine uses electronic diagnostics and artificial intelligence to evaluate electronics' value and pay customers on the spot with cash or credit.

The company the makes ecoATM is based in San Diego. It began rolling out its machines in 2010 and has been operating 50 ecoATMs at malls around California, including the Glendale Galleria, Westfield Century City and Westside Pavilion. Thursday marked the kickoff to another round of openings, starting at malls in Brea and Orange and continuing later this month in Baldwin, Westminster, Ontario, Burbank and the South Bay.

Recycling needs to be convenient, financially rewarding and immediate to prevent people from throwing cellphones in the garbage, ecoATM Chief Executive Tom Tullie said.

Although California is one of the few states that bans electronics from landfills because of the hazardous materials they may contain and their potential to be reused, many cellphones still end up in landfills. Recapturing raw materials such as copper and plastic saves the energy, expense and environmental cost that go into mining and processing new materials.

For every million cellphones that are recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered, according to the EPA.

EcoatmbotTo use the ecoATM, consumers place a device in the machine's door. Cameras take photos of the device from various angles to determine its make and model in a process that takes 20 seconds, Tullie said. In the second phase, a robot, right, inspects the device, produces the appropriate cable and plugs in to determine its condition and value. To complete the transaction, customers need to provide a driver's license and phone numbers to verify ownership, after which the ecoATM will spit out cash or issue a credit.

Customers average $80, Tullie said, though higher-value phones, such as the iPhone 4S, might net "in the high 200s." Customers turning in phones with no value receive no money but do get the satisfaction of recycling.

About 75% of the phones turned in through the ecoATM are refurbished and resold on the wholesale market; the remainder have no market value and are sold for reclamation. Tullie said ecoATM holds Responsible Recycling, or R2, third-party certification to "make sure all our channels do the right thing by the environment."


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The Garbage Maven: Talking trash (and recycling)

Can I Recycle ... fast-food cups, car seats and more 

-- Susan Carpenter

Photos: ecoATM