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Buying refurbished and second hand tech

Buying second hand is a good way to help reduce waste generated by the fast upgrade cycle for new products. There are plenty of second hand tech products on the market, but identifying a functioning device with a decent battery life, sold through a secure site can seem like a surprising struggle.

Here we show you how to navigate the market for second hand tech and why it's important to buy second hand if you can, to reduce carbon emissions.

An incredible 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste was produced in 2021, according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum (WEEE).

The global IT industry produces 272 million laptops every year, with each laptop’s production responsible for an average of 331 kg of CO2.

With pressure to upgrade your devices frequently, many of these devices are thrown away, but they could be reused, bought second hand, or be recycled, but instead many end up in landfill, with human and environmental consequences.

Buying second hand tech can therefore reduce the amount of tech waste going to landfill, and sends a signal to the tech companies that people want devices that last for longer.

Buying second hand or refurbished mobile phones

Second hand phones are widely available – giffgaff estimates that there are currently around 55 million unused phones in the UK. Look for a model that came out within the last three years, certainly if it lacks a replaceable battery, which is often one of the first things to degrade. Unfortunately, the majority of smartphones use a sealed design whereby the battery cannot be replaced without a complicated disassembly.

Beyond three years, battery life degrades quickly and you may be unable to receive software updates or install new apps. You have a little more leeway if buying a more basic model as there is simply less to go wrong.

Durability

A quick web search can reveal which models tend to last longer. There are also ‘rugged’ models, although they can be expensive. It is worth noting that while plastic casing may look cheaper, it is actually more durable than aluminium, which has a tendency to overheat and warp.

If you don’t need all the capabilities of a smartphone, a basic model (known as ‘dumbphones’ or ‘feature phones’) can save you money and last longer.

Buying second hand laptops

Laptops have a longer lifespan than mobile phones, so you can often opt for an older second hand model. However, the lifespan does vary depending on original cost. On average, the following lifespans apply:

Original cost Average lifespan
Under £500 2 – 4 years
£500 – 750  3 – 5 years
£750 upwards 4 – 7 years

It is worth ensuring that a PC is still compatible with modern software. Whilst hardware degrades quite slowly, the sheer speed of innovation can still render it practically obsolete within a few years. For example, support for Windows 10 will end in 2025, leaving PCs that cannot run its successor, Windows 11, vulnerable to security breaches and attacks.

Also ensure that there is a clean install of the operating system so you don’t have to worry about any files or settings left over from the previous user.

Where to buy second hand tech?

Backmarket.com, Game, musicMagpie and Envirofone all carry a wide range of refurbished laptops and mobiles, all with 12 month warranties. Refurbished products tend to be rated from A (essentially new) to D (will need repairing).

Used or refurbished?

Used items are typically sold by the previous owner, and as have not not have been tested repaired prior to sale, so the condition can vary a great deal. You will tend to find the cheapest deals on used items, but this carries a greater risk of ending up with a faulty or damaged product.

For greater reliability, look for items that have been refurbished, either by the manufacturer or seller. A refurbished device is one that may previously have been faulty, but that has been serviced and restored to full working order and should work exactly the same as new. Refurbished devices also tend to come with a warranty, so even if you do receive a faulty unit you should get a replacement.

Ariel photo of laptops and tablets and phones on a table with people sitting around table

What to do if your device breaks?

It is a legal obligation for companies to provide a warranty period. The cover usually lasts for 12-24 months but there are exceptions such as Fairphone and Teracube who have longer warranties for their products - our guide to mobile phones has more information.

Amongst laptops, ASUS stands out with a three-year warranty on some of its range.

Several companies provide care packages that include extended warranties at a cost. These can range from £5 a month to several hundred pounds a year.

Most companies will offer repair services beyond the warranty period, but these may not be cheap.

Repairability of tech devices

Unfortunately, many tech devices are not designed to be easily repaired.

iFixit is a company that rates devices based on their repairability. Fairphone is a clear winner as the most repairable phone, while Framework is leading the laptops list.

iFixit also offers free manuals and repair guides to help people repair their devices. And if you’d like company, the Restart Project encourages handy people to organise ‘Restart Parties’ to share their skills – see the Restart Project website for details.

Finally, if a laptop is definitely beyond repair you can still use its still-working parts. For example, an LCD display can be used as a stand-alone monitor. As Jessika Luth Richter from Lund University in Sweden says, “keeping devices we have in use for longer does two things: it slows the demand for these materials, but it also gives us more time to develop recycling technologies”.

What is closed loop recycling?

In recent years, many companies, particularly Dell, Apple and Lenovo, have been touting circular or closed-loop recycling as a solution to the deepening global e-waste crisis.

Humanity produced 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste in 2021, according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum (WEEE). This is apparently equivalent to the weight of the Great Wall of China.

But closed-loop recycling faces significant obstacles. Just 20% of global e-waste ends up in controlled recycling facilities at present, and they struggle to recover some substances. Recovered plastics tend to lose quality, while metals like gold and cobalt are only partially recovered during recycling so need to be continuously extracted from mines to meet industry demands.

It is also questionable to what extent it is the answer because paradoxically, exclusive focus on a circular economy may drive demand up further. Closed loop recycling becomes more economically viable with more e-waste, so there is a risk of the recycled market becoming reliant upon overconsumption.

It is perhaps a little too convenient that major IT producers are rallying around a concept that accommodates, rather than challenges, the short and highly profitable upgrade cycles of their products. Ultimately, producing less waste by creating longer lasting products to begin with would be a far more sustainable solution.

E-waste: toxic techno trash

How to pass on, or dispose of, phones and laptops safely

There will eventually come a time when your device is unable to keep up with your demands and it reaches the end of usability for you.

If it's still working but doesn't meet your requirements, look for a local or national scheme for donating usable devices. For example, the Restart Project is a great option for donating old laptops and phones, with donation sites across the UK listed on its website.

You can also try selling the device e.g. comparison website Freedom Mobiles lets you search for the model of phone and shows the price offered by re-sales sites. Freedom Mobiles state they don't earn commission from their recommendations.

If the device is well and truly dead, it should be disposed of properly.

Because of the hazardous substances they contain, electronic goods should never just be thrown in the bin. Since 2007, all electrical retailers are legally obliged to either offer their own free disposal service, which must accept goods that were not bought in the shop (Curry’s is one shop that does this), or, alternatively, they must contribute financially to the scheme of national ‘designated collection facilities’. An online search for “WEEE recycling near me” should reveal accredited local recycling companies which will safely dispose of it.

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