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Recycle old phones with push of a button

An ecoATM kiosk its natural habitWestfield San Diego CaliforniMall.  |  Courtesy ecoATM Inc.

An ecoATM kiosk in its natural habitat at a Westfield, San Diego, California Mall. | Courtesy, ecoATM, Inc.

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Updated: March 15, 2013 12:30PM

A new alternative to recycling smart phones, tablets and other electronic devices — ATM-like kiosks that refund money instantly for old electronics — is now available in Lake County.

The kiosks, called EcoATM, aim to make electronics recycling as accessible as a grocery-shopping trip. The machines recycle phones, tablets and MP3 players.

It’s a matter of choice, since gadget fans have a growing number of ways to get rid of their electronic junk, both online and at local recyclers.

The kiosks are operating at 15 malls in the Chicago area, incluidng Gurnee Mills and Westfield Hawthorn Center in Vernon Hills.

Here’s how it works: A person puts her old cellphone in the kiosk’s bin, and cameras inside the kiosk identify the phone, ensure that it works and determine any damages.

A robot inside the kiosk presents the person with the exact USB cable that fits the phone. The person hooks up the cable and finds out the device’s highest market value — on the spot. The kiosk then spits out the amount in cash. The process takes about three minutes.

About 75 percent of the returned devices get refurbished to live a new life for a new owner, while the rest are recycled for their materials.

“There is a huge market for used phones and tablets,” said Mark Bowles, 49, founder and chief marketing officer for EcoATM, a San Diego company that designs and holds the patents on the kiosks.

Bowles said his frustration with the difficulty of recycling his own electronics led him to create the kiosks.

“Ninety percent of new mobile-phone subscribers live in developing countries on a salary of less than $3 a day. Their purchase of a phone is about equivalent to us buying a car,” he said.

EcoATM previously secured $30 million in venture capital and on Jan. 25 closed another $40 million in mezzanine debt financing to expand the kiosk network at the rate of two each day. There are now 305 EcoATMs in 20 states.

Though the privately held EcoATM doesn’t reveal revenues or customer numbers, Bowles said he has been surprised by the pent-up demand for recycling at the kiosks. Yet few people choose the charity-donation option, he said, so EcoATM is working to make the donations a one-touch step.

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