About 30% of fitness-trackers are abandoned — non-profit Recycle Health finds them a second home

Key Points
  • Recycle Health is a nonprofit working out of Tufts Medical School. 
  • The group has collected more than 5,000 wearable devices since it got its start in 2015. 
  • These gadgets have been donated to organizations working with low-income, vulnerable populations for use in nutrition and exercise programs. 
Team-members from Recycle Health
Recycle Health

For many of us, wearable gadgets that track steps, heart rate and other health metrics are a novelty item to play around with for a few weeks. After that, they end up in a drawer to gather dust.

Lisa Gualtieri, an assistant professor at Tufts Medical School, is asking consumers to send her their unwanted Fitbits, Apple Watches and other health-tracking gadgets. Her program, called Recycle Health, collects fitness trackers, refurbishes them and shares them with underserved populations.

Recycle Health, which operates out of the medial school, has already collected more than 5,000 trackers and sent them to non-profit organizations since it got its start in 2015. It has provided the wearables to homeless populations, veterans, senior homes, intellectually disabled adults and others in low income communities.

Gualtieri got the idea when she was preparing a lecture for her students and saw a startling statistic: Surveys from the research firm Gartner suggest that about 30 percent of smart watches and fitness trackers are abandoned. Gualtieri thought it was highly wasteful that these devices so often end up in landfills. She also considered that perhaps they aren't being used in the right ways.

"When the typical person walks into Best Buy and gets a Fitbit on a whim, that's a totally different experience than having the support of health coaches or others in the community who can help with sustained behavior change," she said.

That's particularly true, suggests Gualtieri, for seniors who might need support removing the packaging and setting the devices up, or for those who wouldn't be able to afford one on their own but are motivated to set goals for themselves with the encouragement from their communities.

'Health is a luxury item'

After Gualtieri had the idea for Recycle Health, she put out a call on social media for people in her network to send her their trackers. And she reached out to companies, like Fitbit, which was recently acquired by Google, to ask them to share older models they couldn't sell. Gualtieri said Fitbit, Fossil and Withings have all sent devices, but Apple has not donated. She has received Apple Watches from individuals, however.

But trackers have come in from some unlikely sources over the years as word has spread. Theme parks are constantly collecting gadgets that the original wearer doesn't come back to claim. In many cases, they fall off people's wrists while riding on the ferris wheel. Recycle Health has also received donations from popular tourist sites, like the Statue of Liberty.

Human resources departments at companies are also sending in devices that aren't being used by employees in wellness programs.

These kinds of programs, which aim to bolster the health of a population and drive down health costs, are increasingly popular with large self-insured employers. But not of all them have been successful, and recent studies are finding that they're not always gaining traction with workers in the long-run. Many employees have shared that they feel pressured to change their behavior by their bosses, creating anxiety.

Gualtieri has a few theories about why some people are motivated and others are not. In her view, the key to making the Recycle Health program successful isn't simply to take trackers and hand them out to people who can't afford them. That might result in the same behavior all over again: People becoming intrigued with the devices for a few weeks, then abandoning them. 

Instead, Recycle Health is forging relationships with organizations that serve low-income and vulnerable populations. The goal is to integrate the technology into their existing programs that are already working, and offer the devices on an optional basis.

Making a Fitbit 'less disposable'

At HomeFront, a New Jersey homeless shelter for families, the messaging is intentionally different than many corporate wellness programs.

HomeFront's Liza Peck said the team has learned to avoid pushing their population to get fit. Instead, they'll let families know that the trackers are available when they're ready for them. There are also fitness and therapeutic art programs for the families.

"We encourage manageable goals," she said.

The trackers are an experiment and they might not work for everyone. But Peck said it's been "magical" so far in the cases where they have been effective. Oftentimes, it's as simple as providing some motivation for people to walk a little bit more everyday.

She said about 100 people so far have used the trackers, including the kids.

"We recognize that health is often a luxury item," said Peck, who works as a support services liaison. "The people with fewer obstacles in life have more tools."

Other public health experts see a lot of value in programs like Recycle Health, but they also believe that wearable makers need to do more to make their devices less disposable.

Andrey Ostrovsky, the former chief medical officer for the U.S. Medicaid program, points out that Fitbits can't make people "less hungry or cold," so there's a limit to their usefulness for populations in need. But he does see how programs like Recycle Health are well-intentioned and can be helpful for some.

Ultimately, he encourages companies to use their "entrepreneurial smarts" to identify how to create more value for consumers, especially as they continue to partner with health plans and health systems. Apple has a deal with Aetna that involves subsidized Apple Watches, and Fitbit is working with dozens of employers and health plans.

That way, these devices can be free for everyone and used to help them stay active in a "financial sustainable way," he said.

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