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How to buy secondhand furniture and recycle old furniture

Buying secondhand furniture is a great way to reduce your personal environmental impact. 

This short guide lists online and high street options for buying secondhand furniture, highlights key things to look out for when buying secondhand, and discusses what to do with your furniture when it reaches the end of its life. 

Ethical issues with furniture

Most of the furniture we buy contains some variety of wood, from solid oak to chipboard. There are huge issues in the wood industry, such as illegal deforestation and violations of indigenous land rights.  

8-10% of all forest products are grown or harvested in conditions that may violate national laws. In some of the most threatened forests on earth, this could soar to 40-50%, according to environmental charity WWF. 

Illegal and unethical forestry causes conflict, drives the disappearance of animals and plants, and contributes to climate change.

Lots of furniture is also made from plastics, which are produced from fossil fuels. Textiles and other materials used may be treated, varnished or coloured with toxic chemicals. 

The problems do not end once furniture items leave the factory. Toxic compounds found in furniture paint and upholstery are released into the air over years of use. This process is known as off-gassing and may have a negative impact on your health.

Furniture is also damaging at the end of its life. In the UK almost one in ten people throw away unwanted furniture, cushions, lamps and other similar items every year, amounting to nearly 70 million items discarded, according to a 2022 survey by the company Hammonds Furniture. 

Not only is this wasteful, some materials, such as plastics, cause environmental harm as they break down. Paints on furniture may also leak when in contact with water at landfills, creating a potential environmental hazard. 

Buying secondhand furniture helps reduce the overall demand for new items and therefore helps reduce some of the negative impacts.

Where to buy secondhand furniture

There are plenty of places to buy secondhand items. Many can be bought very cheaply or even found for free.

Here are some suggested online platforms where you can find secondhand furniture.

Websites for secondhand furniture

  • Freecycle and Freegle are websites that allow people to offer and collect unwanted furniture (and many other items) for free. The Olio app also allows people to give away items for free, or sell them for (often low) prices.
  • Gumtree is a website dedicated to buying and selling everything secondhand. It is excellent for bargains. Items are usually collection only and cash on sale, so will need to be local to you. This also means that you won’t be protected by the site if anything goes wrong – for example, the item is broken or not as described – so it’s good to check them carefully before paying.
  • Ebay is one of the most popular options out there for secondhand furniture. It has an impressive range of vintage options, as well as a sub-section for unusual furniture. It is a good option if you’re buying something more expensive because it includes a Money Back Guarantee, meaning you can apply for a refund if the item doesn’t arrive or arrives damaged. Sellers have their own return policies. 
  • Facebook Marketplace is another option to find independent sellers. It also offers Purchase Protection, making it better for more expensive items.
  • Preloved is a dedicated secondhand website, where you can find a variety of things, including furniture and food and drink appliances. You can buy and sell for free, but to respond to the newest adverts, you’ll have to pay a £5 annual membership. It does not offer purchase protection, but if you buy using PayPal, you may have some guarantees that way.
  • Preloved also has a section called Freeloved, which gives unwanted items a home for free.
  • Etsy has lots of sellers offering upcycled furniture, and can be a good way to support independent artists and restorers. The site offers purchase protection of up to $250 (around £200). Sellers have their own return policies.
  • There are also lots of independent upcycled furniture sellers with their own websites or on Instagram, such as Pyke and Co Vintage. Upcycled furniture often costs a bit more to account for the extra work, but can be a way to find unique or unusual items.

We recommend going to see an item before you buy it so you can ensure it is in good enough condition to use as it is or to upcycle.

Generally, we also recommend checking that sofas have a fire safety label, and similarly leaving the label on if you intend to give yours away, as stores such as the charity shops won’t resell without one.

If a secondhand item smells musty, spray vinegar on the surfaces, or leave a bowl of bicarbonate of soda in it for a few days to absorb the smell. Avoid items that smell of smoke, as this is very hard to remove. 

Local options for buying pre-loved furniture

As well as online, there are often local options for buying secondhand furniture. You may prefer to do this as you can view the item and check its condition. 

Charity shops for furniture

Charity shops are a great place for secondhand furniture. British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research, Sue Ryder and Barnardo’s all sell lots of furniture in their stores, or have dedicated furniture shops. 

They all offer a return period. Many can also provide delivery for larger items usually for around £10. 

If you’re interested in the ethics of charity shops, you can read our feature which compares the ethics of different charities. Some charities, including British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research, fund animal testing. The Animal Aid website has a full list of which charities fund animal vivisection, and therefore may wish to avoid. 

You may also have a local charity which runs a shop and will take smaller items of furniture.

Community schemes

Some cities and towns may also have local initiatives for reusing furniture, so it can be worth having a quick look online, or ask your local council. For example, FourSquare in Edinburgh runs the social enterprise Edinburgh Furniture Initiative, which has a couple of warehouse shops, and works with those experiencing homelessness. 

Auction houses and antique shops

Most towns have antique shops so if you are looking for a piece of furniture with history, it's worth browsing around your local shops.

Larger towns may also have auction houses. Auctions are not just for antique furniture as many auction houses also sell affordable contemporary furniture and furnishings. Use local directories to find your nearest auction house. 

How to recycle your furniture

If you have furniture which you are thinking of getting rid of, check first if it can be mended or recycled. There are lots of options from small repairs you may be able to do yourself, or someone may be able to upcycle it, or it could be donated to a charity or local community scheme, sold, or finally recycled if it's definitely reached the end of its life.

We outline some of these options below.

1. Fixing your furniture

Lots of small breakages can be fixed at home, or larger ones can be done by professionals. 

If you have a wobbly chair, you may be able to fix it simply by tightening the screws or re-glueing a loose joint. If a leg or arm is cracked, you could create a splint and reinforce it by using some fun coloured chord. The How Stuff Works website has good tips.

Torn fabric on sofas can also be sewn back up. If you have a stain or major discolouring on the fabric, you may be able to remove cushion or futon covers and dye or bleach them. If needed, you can also buy new covers online.

It’s always worth doing an internet search to see if you can get some advice. Youtube has lots of videos to walk you through possible fixes. 

Man repairing back of sofa

2. Upcycle your furniture

Over time, your furniture may look a bit worse for wear or no longer be to your taste. Often, it is possible to revive it through simple upcycles - either using parts to create something else, or give it a makeover. 

An easy option is waxing wooden surfaces. It will give some extra shine and protection. 

Painting wooden furniture can also be great. Clean the item and sand off any flakes of old paint. (If in doubt follow a video on Youtube, or a guide online.) If your item is made from nice quality wood, you could also sand or strip back the existing varnish or paint, and re-varnish or retreat the wood. 

It’s important to have good ventilation and use protective gloves and goggles if working with chemicals. You may want to look for a local course to learn how to upcycle properly, if you’re using toxic chemicals.  

For those feeling a bit braver, you could also experiment in re-upholstering things like chairs or a headboard for your bed at home. You might need to invest in tools like a staple gun for this, and can follow a tutorial online. The Fabric Outlet, which has stores in Liverpool and Newcastle, sells end of rolls for curtain and upholstery fabrics, so can be a great place to get high quality bargain options. If you have a local fabric or haberdashery shop you could ask if they sell similar off cuts. 

For professional jobs, look online for someone offering furniture restoration near you. This won’t necessarily be cheap, but supports a local craftsperson. It will often still be cheaper than buying something new, and gives you lots of choice over things like the print of the fabric. 

3. Sell your furniture

If you want to sell your furniture, some of the websites listed earlier can be useful options such as eBay, Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace and Preloved.

Each one will have slightly different terms, for example, eBay takes on average between 10–15% of the final sale price, and Facebook Marketplace charges around 5%. Gumtree is free and is cash on collection, but that also means people don’t always show up. Preloved is free for sellers, but does charge an annual fee if you want to upload videos or be prioritised in listings. 

You can also sell items at auctions as well. 

4. Donate your furniture

Freecycle, Freegle, Freeloved (part of the Preloved website) and Olio are all websites that allow you to give items away for free. You may actually save money doing this: you won’t have to pay for a van or petrol for moving or getting rid of big pieces.  

It can be particularly useful if you’re in a rush to empty a house or flat, as lots of items go within a couple of days. Unfortunately, collectors occasionally won’t show up, so it’s worth factoring this risk into your planning. 

Charity shops are a great option for getting rid of your old furniture. Phone ahead of time to check they are accepting items, particularly for larger pieces, as they may not always have space. Lots of charity shops can pick up items that you wish to donate, especially if you’re getting rid of multiple things.

Local community enterprises may also take items for free, and if your local college runs courses in upholstery, home furnishings or carpentry, they may even be interested in taking items that the students can use for practice. 

5. Recycle your furniture

If an item really is at the end of its life, find out how to recycle it in your area using the Recycle Now website

Usually, you will have to take items to a local recycling or waste collection centre. Lots of council waste collections now also have shops for items that are still in reasonable condition, so it’s worth checking on your council website and speaking to someone at the site if you think it might just about have some life left.

Some councils offer collections on big items. You may have to book this ten days or two weeks ahead of time, and there is a limit on how many items they will take each year. Check on your council website.