Why is Livestrong throwing out thousands of its yellow wristbands?

5:23 p.m Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016 Local

When Livestrong introduced its iconic yellow wristbands to the world in 2004, it pioneered a new way for nonprofits and advocacy groups to educate people about their mission. The simple apparel item, catapulted into popularity by the group’s celebrity cyclist founder Lance Armstrong, could be seen everywhere.

And although they are less popular now — after the 2013 revelations of Armstrong’s doping in his unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France victories — the nearly 90 million wristbands the group has distributed across the world are arguably still its most iconic symbol and one that remains a sign of hope and perseverance to many.

So why is Livestrong trying to throw out more than 100,000 of them?

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The gap between the cancer nonprofit and its controversial founder grew a little wider this week, as Livestrong tried to give away thousands of old wristbands in “out-of-date packaging” that include references to the group’s namesake founder and campaigns and websites championed by him.

At a city-organized recycling competition Tuesday, the nonprofit said it could no longer use those wristbands and challenged entrepreneurs to take them and turn a financial loss for the group into something useful for the community.

The group said the wristbands could be used to create an art piece to raise awareness about cancer or as raw material for a playground in the Austin community. The only requirements, the group said, were that they be used for a health-related use and not be taken out of the packaging and resold.

Related: Livestrong’s new chapter: Life after Lance

At its peak, Livestrong distributed about 21 million wristbands in one year in 2005. To handle the demand for the popular advocacy item, the group ordered wristbands from suppliers by the millions, Livestrong President Greg Lee said.

When the group changed its name in the fall of 2012 from the Lance Armstrong Foundation to the Livestrong Foundation, it had a bunch of wristbands in plastic packages with the old name on them. The packaging also listed a now-defunct website for the “Wear Yellow” advocacy campaign between Livestrong and Nike, one of the group’s biggest boosters that dropped its support after Armstrong’s fall from grace.

But Livestrong officials said the move to hand off the wristbands was about practicality and not the lingering specter of its founder.

“That particular element didn’t have anything to weigh in on this, other than regardless of what the name was, it was something we can’t use in commercial business when we sell it outside the country, and so that’s why we made the change,” Lee said.

In recent years, new rules for exporting goods to other countries required a change to the labeling on the packaging that described what materials the wristband and its packaging were made from. As a result, Livestrong was left with more than 100,000 obsolete wristbands.

“We said, ‘OK, it’s got the old name, references to old websites, it doesn’t have the right disclaimer language that we’re required to have to ship it across state and international boundaries. What’s the best way for us to utilize these?’” Lee said.

At around the same time, Lee said, the group learned about the city of Austin’s [Re]Verse Pitch Competition, where businesses and nonprofits offer leftover raw materials to entrepreneurs who can use them in their business ventures.

“We thought, ‘Wow, what a perfect opportunity,’” Lee said. “What a wonderful opportunity if we could find a way to take something we can’t really use effectively anymore … and we can find a way to recycle that.”

Related: What’s in store for Livestrong after CEO’s departure

At 13 cents apiece for about 100,000 wristbands, Livestrong officials said they will lose about $13,000 by giving the wristbands away for reuse. But the group was already losing that money and was paying $184 per month to store unusable merchandise.

Lee said the group considered other alternatives, such as repackaging every wristband, but the plan was deemed unfeasible. Because there was no automated way to do that, it would require people snipping the current packaging with outdated information and putting the wristbands into new packaging one by one.

“It was not cost-effective to do that,” Lee said.

The group won’t know whether the wristbands will be taken for reuse by the competition’s winner until December, but Livestrong officials said even if they aren’t chosen they would still be open to giving the wristbands to entrepreneurs who could use them.

But fans of the yellow wristbands need not fret. Lee said the group has “no plans at all” to stop producing the items — with new packaging that reflects the group’s current name and meets labeling requirements for international trade — and is on track to distribute 1 million of them this year, an increase from 2015.

Lee credits the uptick to a strong year for the recovering organization. In April, the group announced a $1 million pledge, the biggest single donation it has received since 2010. The group is on track to serve 342,000 clients through its cancer support services this year, an increase of between 25 and 30 percent over last year, and has expanded several of its other programs.

“I think a great deal of the energy and excitement around this is because of the cancer connection and people want to show a symbol of hope,” Lee said of the renewed interest in the wristbands. “It’s a way to honor people who are going through that fight.”