How to recycle, resell and buy used electronics

Refurbished electronics are good for the earth and your wallet. Here's what you need to know about buying and selling used tech.
Old mobile phones
Throwing old cellphones in the trash can lead to harmful chemicals and toxins ending up in landfills.urbancow / Getty Images
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By Herb Weisbaum

We all know that used products cost less. And yet, two-thirds of Americans have never purchased a secondhand cellphone or laptop, according to a survey by ecoATM Gazelle, a company that buys, sells and recycles electronic devices.

  • While many consumers said they were comfortable buying secondhand cars (48 percent), clothing (31 percent) and furniture (26 percent), less than 10 percent would purchase pre-owned electronic devices, the survey found.
  • Nearly half (48 percent) of respondents admit they don’t recycle their old cellphones, with most of them ending up in the trash.

Chase Freeman, public relations manager for ecoATM Gazelle, says people need to realize that electronic waste should not be thrown in the trash.

“There are many harmful chemicals and toxins in e-waste, such as cadmium, mercury, lead and arsenic, and those are ending up in landfills across the U.S. where they can leach into the soil and underground waterways,” Freeman told NBC News BETTER. “More times than not, these discarded devices have a lot of life left in them.”

Recycling old electronics keeps this toxic waste from going to the landfill. Buying previously owned devices not only saves you money, it reduces the resources needed to make new ones.

“We found that it’s a great way to save money,” said Chris Raymond, deputy editor for electronics at Consumer Reports. “You can, in fact, save hundreds of dollars or more on a smartphone and hundreds of dollars when it comes to a laptop or tablet.”

A few examples of the deals we found available on Gazelle:

  • iPhone XS Max (64GB) in “excellent” condition for $824
  • Galaxy Note 9 (128GB) in “good” condition for $574
  • iPhone 6 (16GB) in “excellent” condition for $174
  • iPad Pro 12.9" (128GB WiFi + 4G LTE) in “excellent” condition for $529

While buying secondhand digital devices may seem risky, Consumer Reports surveys found that most people — more than 80 percent — who have purchased a refurbished phone are satisfied with the device and the shopping experience. Of the 3,200 Consumer Reports members who bought a refurbished phone since January 2016, 67 percent said they had no complaints. That’s slightly less than the 69 percent of new smartphone owners who said the same thing.

“You have to be careful and do a little bit more homework than if you were purchasing a new product,” Raymond said. “But I don’t think it’s that hard to make sure you’re getting something decent.”

The highest-rated refurbished cellphone stores based Consumer Reports spring 2018 survey: Consumer Cellular (89 out of 100), eBay (88), Apple Store (87), Amazon (86) and Gazelle (83).

ecoATM Gazelle

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HOW AND WHERE TO BUY USED electronics

When you go secondhand shopping, look for products that are “refurbished” or “certified pre-owned.” It means they are like new — inspected and restored to their original condition.

In most cases, these are products that were purchased and then returned. This doesn’t mean the item was damaged; there could have been a minor blemish. Sometimes, the device wasn’t even used after the package was opened.

Here are just a few of the sites that sell refurbished items: Amazon Warehouse Deals, Apple Store, Best Buy Outlet, Black Market, Crutchfield Outlet Store, Dell Outlet, Microsoft, Samsung Certified Pre-Owned and Walmart Certified Refurbished. Your wireless company may also offer refurbished phones.

CHECK THE WARRANTY BEFORE BUYING used devices

Warranties on secondhand devices vary greatly. Refurbished products purchased directly from Apple and Samsung include a one-year warranty. Google offers 90 days. Refurbished items sold by most retailers typically have 90-day warranties. EcoATM Gazelle has a 30-day return policy.

“Be careful where you shop,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. “A refurbished product from a reliable source will save you money and is less likely to have problems than a used device purchased from an unknown website. Remember, a super-low price on a pre-owned cellphone or tablet that breaks down or doesn’t work properly, isn’t a deal, it’s a headache.”

HOW TO RECYCLE OLD ELECTRONICS

Selling or donating unwanted technology is a good way to keep it out of the landfill. You can sell things on your own or take advantage of trade-in programs offered by many big-box stores, manufacturers and wireless companies.

You can sell your old cellphone, tablet, laptop, mp3 player, MacBook or Mac Computer at a Gazelle trade-in site and get an offer in less than a minute. If you accept, the company will send you the box and pay for the shipping. Once the device is inspected (to make sure it matches your description), you will be sent payment via Amazon Gift Card, PayPal or check (your choice).

Or visit an ecoATM kiosk in your area and get instant cash for that smartphone, tablet or mp3 player.

By using ecoATM or Gazelle you know your unwanted device will be resold or responsibly recycled. If you have an old device that you can’t turn into cash, visit 1-800-Recycling.com to find an electronics recycling program in your area.

PURGE YOUR DIGITAL DEVICES BEFORE YOU SELL OR RECYCLE THEM

You need to make sure your laptop, tablet, mobile phone or any other device that stores your data is scrubbed clean, to prevent that information, including passwords, usernames, contacts, credit card numbers and even tax information, from being accessed by someone else. In the hands of an identity thief, the consequences could be devastating.

40 percent of all secondhand digital devices available for sale had personally identifiable information on them.

All too often, sensitive data is not destroyed. A study by the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) published in 2017 found that 40 percent of all secondhand digital devices available for sale had personally identifiable information (PII) on them.

“Never trust a recycling company to delete your information; it’s your responsibility,” said

Robert Siciliano, security awareness expert and CEO of Safr.me. “Simply hitting the delete button or reformatting a hard drive isn’t enough. The device has to be fully wiped for all the data to be removed.”

His advice:

  • For PCs, use DBAN or Active@ KillDisk to “nuke any data” that’s on the hard drive.
  • Macs have a built-in OS X Disk Utility.
  • For phones and tablets, do a factory reset and then use a program called Blancco Mobile. Be sure to remove the sim card from a smartphone.

If you buy a previously owned device, assume it could contain hidden malware. You need to reset the operating system and run security software before you use that device.

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