Here’s the problem with electronic waste. There’s a lot of it (people throw away 400 million units each year, just in the U.S.). It’s difficult to recycle (most gear isn’t designed to be taken apart). And, when you do dispose it, it does a lot of environmental damage, either by leaching chemicals into the ground in landfills or by putting pollutants into the air in incinerators. No more than 25% of electronic waste gets recycled, and probably a lot less.
It was this complex problem that Mark Bowles was trying to address when he came up with the ecoATM five years ago. His machine is full of artificial intelligence, machine-vision technology, cameras, and mirrors. The ecoATM can identify any of 4,000 models of phones, tablets, and MP3 players, and make an immediate pay-out in cash based on the real-time international recovery price. In April, the 650-strong ecoATM network recycled its 1 millionth device. By Thanksgiving, the company hopes to reach the 2 million mark.
Bowles had a 25-year background in semiconductors and microprocessors before deciding he wanted to get into the recycling business. “I had a whole drawer full of phones and I didn’t know what to do with them,” he says. “I had the vague idea there was a box at the zoo, maybe a charity box at the carrier store, and maybe some kind of mail-in. But it wasn’t convenient.”
His initial idea involved Boy Scouts as door-to-door collectors. But he quickly realized that was terrible “for a bunch of reasons.” He saw the coin-collecting Coinstar kiosk, and thought “we might be able to do something like that for the phone.”
Three years later, he had the ecoATM. It stands about 10 feet tall. From a touch screen, you select the device you have to sell, and put it inside. The ATM does a 3-D scan identifying the model from its 4,000 device database, checking for flaws, and grading its condition from one to eight. Using a cable provided, you then plug in the device, letting the machine do an electrical check.
Finally, after checking the current price for the phone or its components, the ecoATM spits out a price that’s anywhere from $25 to $300. About 40% of devices are sold for full reuse. The rest is sold as scrap to certified recyclers.
This summer, Cointar-owner Outerwall bought ecoATM for $350 million. It plans to expand across the U.S., and go into Europe and Asia. There are plans for laptops and PCs as well, Bowles says.
Having made a tidy sum in the sale, Bowles is now working with several San Diego start-ups, offering investment and mentorship. Asked for advice he would give other enviro-entrepreneurs, he offers some real talk:
“Don’t count on consumers responding to the same tired save Mother Earth, guilt-trip type environmental marketing. People are living day to day and they’re just trying to get by. Fit your value proposition into the bottom part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Only a single-digit percentage of the population will respond to ‘Recycle, we’re killing the planet.’ Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. You just have to get over that. What we did was to say, ‘Well, if they won’t respond to the environment, let’s give them something they will respond to, which is cash.’ That’s just the way it is.”