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TechForward: Tech recycling for the upgrade-happy

A start-up bets that environmental concerns and rapid upgrades will convince consumers at purchase to sell back their electronic gadgets in two years.

As people buy more electronic stuff, there's growing concern over hazardous electronic waste. A number of new companies are trying to keep that gear from fouling up landfills--and make a buck while doing it.

TechForward's spin on electronic recycling is getting consumers to think ahead and plan on returning their gadgets for resale.

The business model of the 3-year-old company, based in Los Angeles, is to sell consumers a buy-back deal at the point of sale. So when you buy a shiny new iPod or digital camera, you can plan on selling it back in two years.

TechForward has devised algorithms that figure out how much a product will be worth. A consumer can decide to sell something back sooner for more money as well.

It makes most sense for people who expect to upgrade to a newer model within a year or two and want to see these goods recycled.

"We saw an opportunity to help people be more environmentally responsible and still get the latest and greatest technology," said Jade Van Doren, the CEO.

If a product has no commercial value, then TechForward will recycle it in "an environmentally responsible way."

To make its buy-back service available to consumers as they purchase electronics, the company is planning on announcing a partnership with a large regional retailer and a national retailer in the next two months, Van Doren said.

The company has raised two rounds of venture funding in the past year and a half.

TechForward has also started a trade association called Ownership 2.0 with other companies based on subscription-based services or temporary ownership models, like temporarily owning textbooks.

The TechForward buy-back program--like the electronics repurchasing service Gazelle--relies on the assumption that most consumers are not comfortable selling their individual gadgets themselves on eBay.

Since it's trying to sell to purchasers of new products, TechForward will be reselling goods from its customers, rather than actually breaking them down into their component parts.

But extending the life of an electronic gadget, rather than having it lie in a drawer and eventually be thrown in the trash is a good outcome from an environmental point of view, said Van Doren and co-founder Marc Lebovitz who is vice president of operations.

Also, making money in recycling is difficult, which means that there aren't many businesses competing to offer ways to responsibly dispose of electronics.

"If you're just doing recycling, it's a tough business to be in for profit. You're not creating a tremendous amount of value and you're moving around heavy devices with (big) shipping costs," Lebovitz said.