Second-hand tech: Could 2023 be a tipping point for e-waste?

E-waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, and efforts have been made to turn the tide by promoting the green credentials of second-hand goods. But could the market’s growth reach unprecedented levels for another reason – the rising cost of living?

Second-hand tech: Could 2023 be a tipping point for e-waste?

The UN stated in 2020 that global e-waste generation had increased by 21% since 2015. The majority of this waste was not properly recycled – $57bn worth went to waste.

A new UN report is yet to come, but the next edition may well reveal that e-waste’s growth is set to be stemmed by a boom in the market for second-hand electronics and electrical devices. Used smartphone sales increased by 20% each year in Europe between 2016 and 2020.

Even steeper growth figures are expected for the 2020s so far as shoppers seek cheaper options amid the rising cost of living. With 93% of Europeans citing the cost-of-living crisis as their biggest personal concern, buying a new technology will simply not be an option for many.

And retailers are taking note. Currys added second-hand products to its main website for the first time in February. AO this month started selling used phones, building on its offerings of refurbished white goods. And if you’ve used the London Underground in the last 12 months, chances are you’ll have seen Back Market’s eye-catching ads filled with kittens.

The tagline for the refurbished tech retailer, which was founded in 2014, is “sorry, cats – tech now has multiple lives too”.

buzzman back market main2

Back Market’s head of sustainability Camille Richard said that just one-quarter of its customers cite environmental impact as their main reason for choosing refurbished tech. For three quarters, the driver is price. Richard thinks the cost-of-living crisis is a major factor behind increasing sales.

“The price of new technologies has been skyrocketing in recent years,” she says. “It’s crazy that you will pay more than £1,000 for a new smartphone.”

So, does it matter that the uptick in used tech sales is likely not down to people becoming more environmentally aware?

Richard says: “It’s OK if not everyone is coming to us for impact. At the end of the day, the results are the same.”

Nonetheless, she does note that knowledge of the environmental impact of phones, tablets and so on is increasing. In 2020, just 5% of Back Market’s US customers cited environmental impact as their reason for buying refurbished. Now, the proportion exceeds 20%.

For Richard, the point at which a shopper chooses refurbished for the first time to save money is a great time to communicate the environmental benefits of shopping second-hand. France’s Agency for Energy and the Environment estimates that choosing a refurbished smartphone over a new one can reduce waste by 89%, while also preventing the mining of more than 243kg of raw materials and the use of 77,000 litres of water. This is enough water for a person to drink for 103 years.

These data points are communicated to Back Market customers via a blog post, which takes a conversational and humorous tone that is characteristic of the company’s wider communications. Its popular products page encourages people to “roll up, roll up!” The homepage contains a brief love (and hate) letter to Apple, Samsung and LG from Back Market’s three founders. Top of its list of FAQ is: “How do I know my device won’t conk out in a month?”

Richard says: “What we’ve been trying to do… is to flip the image people used to have around second-hand, renewed tech – or renewed anything. It used to be the perception that people only chose this if they didn’t have money. The idea is to make refurbished sexy… and to make the classic new devices manufacturer look a bit like a has-been.”

B2B trends

As second-hand consumer tech becomes more popular, some believe the market will grow even more rapidly in the B2B sector – including Canon’s sustainability and government affairs director for EMEA, Peter Bragg.

Canon recently launched a range of remanufactured printers made using at least 90% used parts, after using an average of 80% used content in its previous B2B remanufactured range. This evidences an ever-growing demand for these devices, which are processed in Giessen, Germany.

Compared with refurbished devices, like those sold by Back Market, remanufactured devices have undergone a “higher-intensity” process that likely involves replacing more parts.

Bragg believes the key drivers of the growth in demand for remanufactured printers, which Canon only offers on a B2B basis, are less to do with cost and more to do with regulation and with stricter sustainability targets.

He says: “We see a lot of demand in our Southern European markets, and that is, in part, due to legislative requirements and public procurement requirements. On that basis, we’re seeing a lot of Government departments, educational institutions, healthcare providers interested – as well as businesses showing a strong interest in being more sustainable.”

“In the customer bids and tenders we’re doing, the weighting of sustainability is getting higher and higher compared against price,” he adds, and has not seen a major change amid the cost-of-living crisis.

The embedding of sustainability into strategy, Bragg believes, has changed mindsets on second-hand technologies: “There used to be this mindset that the refurbished, manufactured, circular approach was a challenge compared to just buying new. This has created conflict within organisations… now, it’s almost the default option for a lot of customers.”

The deputy head of Panasonic Toughbook, Steven Vindevogel, agrees that the main drivers of growth for B2B used tech are less to do with cost and more to do with meeting targets – either voluntary or imposed by regulation.

Over more than a decade with the business, he says he has seen queries about recycling, reuse and product longevity “growing day after day”. The main driver, he believes, is that most organisations now have reached a “general consensus” on the importance of environmental sustainability.

Panasonic Toughbook  – the business unit which offers things like laptops and tablets – has clients across the private and public sectors, including police and fire services, government bodies, local authorities, manufacturers, utilities and postal firms.

It recently launched ‘Toughbook Revive’, whereby used devices are taken back for refurbishment at the company’s European service centre in Cardiff, Wales. Parts that cannot be reused will be recycled – and Panasonic notably has a partnership with the Royal Mint to scale technologies that enable metals from used tech to be recycled into coins.

Cost saving or charitable giving?

It bears noting that Panasonics’ Toughbook Revive programme is not for profit. Customers do not get money from handing in their used items – they only get the satisfaction of knowing of the environmental and social impact their choice has made. On the social piece, some refurbished products are sold but others are donated to charities that may otherwise not have been able to afford them.

Vindevogel explains that Panasonic has offered buy-back before but “feels like it is missing the target” by “making it more about discounts for new units than sustainability and the circular economy”.

He summarises: “This is not a buy-back programme. It’s a collaboration. Our customers can join in, in giving devices a second life”.

In the cost-of-living crisis, every household and business will be looking to reduce costs. But most will also be aware of how the crisis is impacting those less fortunate than themselves.

Join the conversation at edie’s Circular Economy Action Sessions 

On Thursday 25 May, edie is hosting an afternoon of live, interactive webinar presentations and discussions – all dedicated to capturing the business opportunity of a resource-efficient, zero-waste economy.  We have confirmed guest speakers from organisations including BT, The Body Shop and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The Circular Economy Action Sessions are free-to-attend and registration grants you access to a recording of the event on-demand once it has finished.

Click here for a full agenda and to register.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie