RecycleHealth finds unused activity trackers new homes with underserved populations

By Jonah Comstock
09:40 am
Katherine Morley makes a donation at the Hirsh Library at Tufts. Katherine Morley makes a donation at the Hirsh Library at Tufts.

Last year when Endeavor Partners published a study showing that a third of wearable activity tracker users consign their device to the sock drawer within six months, most people saw it as a fatal flaw in the activity tracker trend. But Lisa Gualtieri, an Assistant Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University, saw it as an opportunity.

"You can recycle cellphones, you can recycle your glasses, you can recycle used tennis balls," Gualtieri told MobiHealthNews. "Almost anything can be recycled or reclaimed or refurbished except [activity trackers]. What do you do with these devices? They’re still good, but they’re sitting there."

Gualtieri started RecycleHealth in April with the goal of giving unused activity trackers -- mostly Fitbits so far, but RecycleHealth accepts all devices -- a second life. The company has collected about 20 devices so far and has plans to donate them to the Montachusett YMCA in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where they will be used to help older and lower income individuals have access to devices, as well as to learn about how those populations interact with activity trackers.

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"[The Montachusett YMCA] runs a weight loss challenge starting in the fall, and what we would like to do is to provide half of the people, randomly selected, with a device that they would get to keep, and the only thing we would be asking of them is that they complete a survey every month, because we’re interested in understanding how they use these devices," Gualtieri said. "And, in particular, how does it help people to increase their fitness and sustain this increased level of activity?"

So far, Recycle has accepted donations by mail, and via donation boxes on campus, but just recently they put out a second donation box at Forrester Research. Forrester is one of a number of companies that recently purchased Fitbits for all its employees, so Gualtieri hopes it will yield a lot of donations. Gualtieri has also met with both Withings and Fitbit about possibly providing donations or helping raise awareness of the company's mission.

At her day job, Gualtieri's research focuses on digital health communication, and she has applied some of that research background at Recycle Health as well. The company conducted a survey of 1,091 people, 55.9 percent of whom turned out to own an activity tracker. When asked about "your unused wearable or about your current wearable if you were to stop using it for any reason”, more than half said they were extremely unlikely to sell or throw a wearable away. By contrast, participants were quite interested in donating a wearable to help someone who can’t afford one: 30 percent said they would be very likely to do so and 23 percent said they would be extremely likely to do so.

"What we’d really like to do ideally is to get better known so that we’re getting more donations of unused wearable activity trackers," Gualtieri said. "One of the biggest problems that we see is that there are, if you look at the sales of wearable activity trackers, and then you look at the actual use of them, there conservatively could be millions of these sitting in people’s drawers. Giving people an opportunity to re-use them in a way that helps others is something we’d like to be able to do on a larger scale."