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Sustainable U: A buyer’s Guide to refurbished electronics

By Rachneet Randhawa, February 8 2021—

It’s more important now than ever to spend your money locally. Retailers had a hard holiday season and quarantine measures have been devastating for small business owners who are struggling to keep their shops afloat.

Calgary Dollars is a local currency that incentivizes you to spend money in a city-wide network of participating stores and in turn receive rewards and promotional discounts. The goal of a complementary currency system is to encourage Calgarians to buy local and build relationships in the community. As a nonprofit, funds are reinvested locally thus strengthening an already resilient economy.

One of the most popular buys any time of year is electronics. Laptops, smartphones, smartwatches, smart televisions, tablets, gaming consoles, headphones, instruments and drones, among other items are popular not only around the holidays but year round. Despite the stigma of the broke college student, it would be nice to save some cash and use it towards your tuition if you are in the market for a new computer.

Instead of waiting for the next sale, there’s an alternative approach to purchasing an electronic gift for yourself or others — buying refurbished. Now I know what you’re stereotypically thinking — second hand, hand-me-down, or worse, thrift, would be a terrible way to acquire an electronic device. Who knows what’s happened to it. But, I am here to tell you this is a misconception that could not be further from the truth.

From a personal perspective, I mostly bought my devices for school refurbished through local retailers. It is a matter of learning how to navigate the market. Firstly, remember that buying brand-spanking new does not always necessarily mean better. For instance, when Apple released the new “butterfly” keyboard on their latest MacBook laptop models beginning in 2015, most avid fans were disappointed and opted to buy refurbished models with the original design because they malfunctioned less. So it’s also a matter of taste and preference. Although saving some cash is awesome, many of you may not want to put in extensive effort to shop around. Listed below are five hot tips to get you started on your next shopping spree. Of course, these are not super technical but from the basic user perspective of yours truly they have a modicum of truth.

Retailer or Manufacturer?

The big question is if you should go to a local retailer that does a resale of the electronic item or go directly to the manufacturer. For instance, Open Box offers discounted floor model electronics on various electronic devices and does price matching, which means the retailer agrees to match a lower price from a rival store. Going in person, they sometimes offer discount deals if the product has a minor aberration such as a scratch or scuff.

Both retail and manufacturer options provide all accessories and are properly cleaned and tested with updated software. It is also nice to have a friendly and helpful face to rely on if your laptop crashes inconveniently right before final exams. Both are great options. However, be aware of the warranty. For instance, all Apple refurbished iOS products come with a one-year warranty and they are known to provide phenomenally-high-quality, almost-like-new products with on average 15 per cent savings for the customer, including free shipping and returns. One drawback of going to one of those second-hand retailers is that they are not always transparent with the fact that components of the device are non-replaceable. For instance, the battery will not be replaced for free if it turns out a few months later it’s not holding its charge. This is a sneaky extra expense to you as the customer which will end up costing you more if you have to replace these parts. Regardless, both retailers and manufacturers offer some type of warranty but make sure to read the fine print of what is included and not included.

Certain products you should NOT buy refurbished

I have to admit I love a bargain. But I would err on the side of simply not making certain purchases. For instance, most smartphones these days are inexpensive. Despite going on a term contract with your service provider you can also find brand new older models that are unlocked at an affordable price. I would only suggest buying a used smartphone as an emergency in case you’ve lost your original one and there is no hope or back up. A lot of these smartphones that you buy out of the back of somebody’s pickup truck from a random Kijiji listing are a quick buy that does not last long. They can start to malfunction sometimes and come without a warranty because there is no official retail store to repair the smartphone. Also for relatively inexpensive items such as earphones or headphones, you can always score these on sale — they’re not something you want to buy used, mostly for hygienic reasons, and that was the case even before coronavirus caused a renewed obsession with cleanliness.

The longevity of replacement parts

Again, remember to know what is exactly included in the components of the electronic device, ask what the quality is like and if it is fully functioning. For instance, for computers make sure the battery and charger cable is in full working order so you don’t have to pay upfront. I have had the experience of trading in my Toshiba laptop for an HP only to find out it required a WiFi adapter and still sucks at detecting a connection. Also, if you buy an older model sometimes the replacement parts are no longer manufactured. For instance, a 2008 late MacBook model’s battery will get pricier as the years go by due to less popularity and scarcity. If anything, at times it may even be better to buy brand new if the costs of the replacement parts exceed the purchase value of the device, thereby defeating the purpose of it being a bargain buy.

Software updates based on the original model release date

Another pain point to be aware of is the system and software updates for your device based on the original model release date. For instance, a Mid-2010 macOS High Sierra MacBook or iMac will not be able to transition to the latest Mojave, Catalina followed up by Big Sur OS. It may not seem like a big issue at first. But when you are on the App Store don’t be surprised when you are blocked from downloading a specific app simply because your device does not meet system requirements. We have all seen this addicting need to upgrade to the latest and greatest Apple or Android smartphone update because the older versions don’t support many of the newest and best apps. But if being on-trend doesn’t matter to you, it shouldn’t phase you all that much, it could still be an ideal find on a basic budget that works for the typical college student whose greatest use will be for coursework or video streaming. 

Environmental damage

Need I say more? Last year there were 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste dumped globally. This means that only 17.4 per cent of the discarded electronics in the world were recycled. On average 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are disposed of across the world every year — most of which can be reused and recycled for parts. Did you know what recycling 1 million laptops is equivalent to the use of electricity of approximately 3600 households in the US every year? Your decision to purchase a refurbished one drastically impacts environmental pollution in the long run. If not for your pocket, do it for the planet.   

At the end of the day, if you properly care for your electronic device, in actuality it can last for years. Of course, this may not be possible as a first-year frustrated college student who has tapped out your laptop’s juice by their first round of midterm exams, but I digress. It is possible to get a good-quality bargain to find and get savings that are better reinvested towards your degree program. So next time before you immediately jump to BestBuy’s website when the urge hits to dispose of your current device, recall these simple tips and choose to be more conscious in your consumer choices by being sustainable in the purchase of your electronics. It is a bit of leg work but well worth it for your pocket and the environment. 

So how does one get the golden find when shopping for an electronic product? Adopt the mindset of someone sustainable and socially responsible.

Sustainable U is a regular column focused on sustainability. This column is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board. 

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