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EcoATM pays you for used gadgets

Kiosk provides self-serve e-cycling to consumers ready to ditch their portable devices. The first machine is in Omaha, Neb., and more are on the way.

You know that old Motorola Razr that's been sitting in your nightstand for the last year? If you live near Omaha, Neb., you can march up to the EcoATM at the Nebraska Furniture Mart, toss it in, and automatically get an in-store trade-up coupon or gift card.

The self-serve e-cycling station electronically inspects phones, assigns them real-time secondary market value, and provides in-store payment--if the handset still has any monetary worth. If not, consumers can choose to assign the device to the recycle bin, and then it's on its way to getting recycled or refurbished.

EcoATM kiosk

The kiosk at the Omaha store is the first such station to be installed by San Diego-based start-up EcoATM, and it's serving as a test case in advance of a scheduled larger rollout.

The company, formerly called ReMobile, declared the Nebraska machine an immediate success when it went into operation September 21--both in the number of recycled devices collected and the trade-up purchases.

On its first day, 23 phones went into the recycle bin. In addition, "the EcoATM at NFM bought back over $100 in phones on day two, including a perfect BlackBerry Curve," Twittered EcoATM's Eric Rosser, who said in an interview he thinks retailers will appreciate the automation of the EcoATM and consumers will value the speed and convenience.

The company plans to install kiosks at wireless stores and big-box retailers in San Diego, Texas, Washington state, and Vermont this quarter, Rosser said, with a "massive rollout" set for the second quarter of next year. Eventually the EcoATMs should be able to recognize other gadgets, such as MP3 players, digital cameras, notebooks, printers, and storage devices.

The machines rely on 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.

Of course, whether a machine can assess a product's value with the same accuracy and nuance as a human remains to be seen. In any case, the system's aimed at countering the growing problem of e-waste. In the United States alone, more than 100 million cell phones get thrown away every year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. (On the front end, wireless companies are making a concerted effort to go green, with gear such as the Samsung Reclaim and other initiatives.)

"Today, a used consumer electronic goes into your drawer or garage, sits there until it decays to zero value, and then goes into a landfill," said Rosser, vice president of sales and marketing for the company. "We want to change that paradigm so it's more like car. When you're done with a car you don't just put it in your garage and leave it to rot."

Retailers get the machines installed for free, with obvious incentives including reward tie-ins and the potential for increased foot traffic. Participating businesses can also use the EcoATM to support the charitable cause of their choice ("Give us your used game console and we'll donate a dollar to the Saginaw Community Center"). In addition, they are getting help complying with e-waste laws (and possibly picking up some eco-cachet while they're at it).

"Consumer electronics retailers and their OEM partners are facing a complex and growing set of state and municipal e-waste laws," said Leslie Hand, research director at IDC Global Retail Insights. "Consumer convenience is important to solving the e-waste problem in the U.S., and trade-in/trade-up incentive programs are proving to be quite effective in retail."

This EcoATM, the first to be installed, is currently undergoing a trial run at the Nebraska Furniture Mart in Omaha. EcoATM