Refurbished technology: an insider’s guide

Apr 18, 2017
4 minute read
Digital Inclusion • Operations • Program
For social service organizations, digital access is increasingly critical to the success of their clients, constituents, and patrons. The people they serve need it to apply for jobs, complete schoolwork, search for a home, or apply for benefits.

At the same time, the speed at which technology is changing means we throw out an estimated 10 million metric tons of electronic waste each year, just in the United States.

But there is a way to connect clients to the digital tools they need without spending thousands of dollars on new technology. Tech refurbishers—often nonprofits themselves—are repurposing unwanted electronics for digital inclusion programs, aiming to lower the cost to clients and curb the environmental impact of e-waste.

Digital inclusion, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, is the triad of broadband internet, a digital device like a laptop or desktop, and the skills to use that device. But data from both local and national sources is clear: There are numerous barriers to digital adoption, from affordability to lack of access.

Reuse is a tool for digital equity

It’s clear that digital resources are in excess to some, but remain much-needed by others. The refurbishment stream presents an alternative: the redistribution of our technology resources. Participating in the cycle of reuse means that technology sourced from government, businesses, community organizations can be further used by community members rather than going straight into the recycle.

Refurbisher Free Geek, based in Portland, processed over 1 million pounds of e-waste in 2016, and in the same year, returned  about 3,500 refurbished devices to the community. Repairing and repackaging an item requires fewer resources overall than manufacturing something brand new.

For Kyle Wiens, CEO of repair site iFixit, this means shaking off the dominant “culture of new.” “People have this fixation with new, and I don’t understand it,” Wiens said in 2016. “It’s a good buy. It’s better for everybody.”

Product quality and cost matter, too

For some, “refurbished” implies poor quality. Brian Chen wrote in April 2016 for the New York Times, “People may lack trust in a pre-owned product because it has been used by someone other than themselves.” But in reality, it doesn’t equate to broken or bad. Every day, Americans make major financial decisions to purchase cars and houses that were previously owned. Chen continues: “My takeaway is that you can buy pre-owned products from reputable brands with as much confidence as you might buy a used car from a certified dealer.” Last December, Consumer Reports wrote that only about 5 percent of electronics sold by refurbishers are found to be defective. And some so-called refurbished items are entirely unused—“they might have been returned because a delivery guy nicked the box during shipping.”

All of this translates to overall cost savings. While the cost of technology is perceived as high, it doesn’t have to be that way.

A transparent process

The refurbishment process pulls back the cover on supply and demand. Different products received are sorted and triaged once in the door. At Free Geek, anything with data goes straight into a secure data area, where data-bearing objects (think hard drives, SD cards) are “wiped”—written over multiple times—or destroyed, if necessary. From there, the hardware is tested. Computers are further evaluated and then re-built to an exact specification, quality-checked, and reviewed once more by staff.

What can I expect from my refurbished electronics?

Are there shortcomings to some types of refurbished electronics? Sure; battery lifetime, for example, won’t be out-of-the-box status. And if for some reason the hardware fails, a replacement may not be an identical model. But it will will meet the same need. This makes it important to review the warranty. All technology has issues—even brand new. Expect that an issue or two will come up over the life of any device. Many refurbishers also offer tech support for their devices, and some offer warranties.

Price is based on the age, brand, and hardware specifications, and in some cases, the buyer’s eligibility. At Free Geek, desktop units range from free to about $100 and laptops run between $150-$300 each.


Want more? Look for the nonprofit refurbisher in your area. AFTRR, an alliance of nonprofit technology refurbishers and recyclers, provides a handy map of its members.
Sara Rasmussen

Sara Rasmussen

Digital Inclusion Manager, Free Geek

Sara Rasmussen is the Digital Inclusion Manager at Free Geek in Portland, Oregon. She is a committed advocate for using technology as a tool for social justice. A communications strategist, digital marketer, designer, and project manager, Sara worked most recently for Pyramid Communications, a communications agency for causes. Born and raised in Oregon, she holds a degree in Politics from Whitman College.

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