EcoATMs encourage recycling and…theft?

July 16, 2014

An ecoATM kiosk is pictured in this undated handout photoTechnology moves so rapidly that almost any gadget you buy will soon seem behind-the-times. Nowhere is the adage truer than in the cellphone industry. Every year, upgrades to your iPhone, Droid, or Samsung Galaxy phone render last year’s version technologically obsolete. As a result, our cellphones have become largely disposable.

Unfortunately, the disposable nature of our cell phones carries negative implications for the environment. Cellphones and their accessories contain a large number of toxic materials such as antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, copper and lead which can linger in the environment for a long time and have adverse effects on human health. While many of those materials can be recycled and reused; cellphones and these toxic materials end up in landfills where they can contaminate air, soil and groundwater. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, only 11 percent of the estimated 152 million discarded cell phones are properly recycled.

In 2008, a California-based company came up with a clever way to encourage cellphone recycling: ecoATMs. EcoATM which touts itself as “the first company to create an automated self-serve kiosk system to purchase used mobile phones, tablets and MP3 players for cash,” offers those with obsolete cellphones an easy option for recycling the phones in exchange for cash. It is this easy option, however, that lawmakers and law enforcement personnel believe encourage cellphone theft.

EcoATMs Make Cell Phone Recycling Easy

First, ecoATM customers insert a driver’s license or other valid, state-issued photo identification in the machine; and provide a valid thumbprint. Off-site ecoATM employees monitor the transaction and will stop the process if a customer is under 18 years of age, a customer’s thumbprint is inconsistent with their ID, or their ID is invalid.

Second, ecoATM customers place their cellphones into the machine for visual and electronic inspection. The machine assesses the phone for cracks or other physical damage. Next, the machine identifies the phone from a catalog of more than 4,000 possibilities, and offers a cable for the customer to plug into the cell phone. The machine ensures that the cellphone is functioning properly and does not access or download any personal information, such as photos, videos or contact information. Nonetheless, ecoATM recommends customers remove personal data from the phone before depositing it into the machine.

Finally, the machine offers a price, based on the cell phone’s model number, condition and value in the secondary markets. Customers who accept the machine’s value assessment of their phone receive instant cash.

EcoATMs Targeted by Lawmakers and Law Enforcement

“Cash-for-phones” is not a new concept. Cellphone owners have long been able to sell their old cellphone back to companies such as Best Buy and Apple, or place their cell phones back into the marketplace such as eBay or Craigslist. EcoATMs are unique, however, in offering cash on the spot at the end of a relatively simple process. For many lawmakers and law enforcement personnel, ecoATMs’ “promises of instant cash for phones” incentivizes cellphone theft. For example, the Washington Post reported that D.C. police have witnessed cellphone thieves use a third party to complete an ecoATM transaction. The article cited a police video of an elderly woman, suspected of being a middleman, deposit of stack of boxes into a local ecoATM. Accordingly, many jurisdictions have moved to create tighter regulations on the sale of used cellphones or impose complete bans of ecoATMs. In March of this year, Baltimore County, MD joined Baltimore City, MD in its ban of ecoATMs. Likewise, Oakland, CA which has seen cellphone thefts spike from 1,600 in 2009 to 3,400 in 2013, is considering a similar ban.