ecoATM Tries to Take the Waste Out of E-Waste

ban-startup-fridayecoatmkioskWho would have guessed that a store called the Nebraska Furniture Mart would be at the leading edge of consumer electronics life-cycle management? But it is. The store is hosting the first ecoATM machine, the brainchild of a San Diego startup that has found a way to make recycling consumer electronics easier—as well as valuable.

Mark Bowles founded ecoATM. With a background that includes seven years at Motorola and five venture-backed start-ups, Bowles found inspiration for the ecoATM from the 30-year-old bottle and can redemption infrastructure. Just as consumers can earn a refund for bottles and cans in many states, the ecoATM provides consumers with value—either through a direct payback or through store coupons—in exchange for used electronics. Consumers can also opt to put the monetary value of the devices they drop off toward a charity that the retailer suggests. The first ecoATM—a self-serve kiosk that retailers can host for free—came online at the Nebraska Furniture Mart on September 21. More retailers in Texas, Washington, Vermont, and San Diego also plan to install ecoATMs this year.

As of now, the machines only accept cell phones. The consumer places the device in the kiosk, which determines its value. According to CNET, the kiosk uses “a camera-based system to detect signs of wear such as cracked screens, missing keys, and scuff marks, and to determine a device’s approximate value. If it’s not worth anything, consumers could still get a free gift for their efforts–in Omaha’s case, a waterproof phone case. And in a green nod, EcoATM will plant a tree for them.”

This approach also provides a new model by which manufacturers can work to comply with e-waste take-back laws that have emerged in many states across the country. (Early attempts to pass Federal legislation for e-waste takeback failed, and as a result the task has fallen on individual states to legislate the proper handling of used electronics, which pose a serious environmental and human-health hazard when improperly disassembled—something that often happens in third world nations.)

Bowles and his team plan to expand the capabilities of the ecoATM machines to accept MP3 players, digital cameras, notebooks, printers, and storage devices in the future. This could go a long way toward improving the life-cycle management of what it estimates to $25 billion in latent consumer assets.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to

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