It’s hard to get new things right now. Laptops, tablets, and home office devices are backordered into irrelevance. New “flagship” phones seem like even more of an unnecessary splurge than they already were. Even Amazon, torchbearer for frictionless purchasing, is asking people to buy less.
But nothing about COVID-19 is simple. It’s easy to think that this crisis will make people turn to used goods, or fixing up what they have, and get used to it, or even like it. In some ways, that anecdote bears out—we are certainly selling a lot of laptop, phone, and game console parts and fix kits here at iFixit.
That narrative isn’t playing out everywhere. The coronavirus lockdown is challenging repair shops, refurbishers, and recyclers to create virus-safe spaces, deal with a deeply diminished stream of used goods from consumers, and uncertainty about the lasting effects of this moment on people’s habits.
I asked repair shops, electronics recyclers, and refurbishing shops about how they’re handling these odd, trying times. Here are a few of their stories.
Springy Demand for Used Devices
HOBI International provides asset management—they take used devices from companies, then responsibly recycle them or refurbish them for resale. They also sell some items through other companies and their eBay store. The consumer market, until recently, was something of a secondary concern. Now HOBI is telling companies about “the dramatic demand increase” it’s seeing in retail sales.
“One of our premises … is that we are seeing people buy refurbished products (especially on the mobile side) that have never dabbled in this marketplace before,” wrote Craig Boswell, president and co-founder of HOBI, in an email. “Our hope is that through the positive experiences we are creating with quality refurbished products, these customers will become lifelong refurbished buyers.”
Kelly Keogh, co-founder and managing director of Greeneye Partners, confirmed an uptick in tablet and laptop resale among the recyclers her firm audits. At Sunnking, an electronics recycler and refurbisher in upstate New York, the weeks after shelter-in-place orders went into effect were “a frenzy,” said Vice President Adam Shine. Chromebooks, refurbished laptops, and monitors have been hot, of course, but so are A/C adapters. Workers who have their laptops at home for the first time, school districts rushing to get devices to kids—even Shine himself—suddenly find themselves in need of obscure blue and yellow plugs and power bricks.
But most people I talked to in refurbishment see demand starting to level off, as people get situated at home and spend less in an uncertain economy. And it’s going to be a while until more high-quality used goods come back into the system. Essential businesses that are still open can’t spare the time or cash to upgrade, non-essential businesses have closed offices, and this crisis might teach people to hold onto working but older devices much longer.
“As fast as this stuff went out, I think it’s going to be slow to come back,” Shine said.
Shine knows that getting more use out of devices is, on the whole, a good thing for the earth. But it makes sustaining his business, and paying his workers, tougher. Especially as the recycling side slows dramatically.
Electronics Recycling Is All But Paused
The flow of post-consumer devices heading to recyclers is “way, way down,” Keogh said. Facilities that strip down electronics are working with 20 percent or less of their staff. Shine said his intake is down 75 percent from pre-quarantine levels. He’s had to lay off 17 temporary workers and furlough 40 recycling handlers. There’s a backlog for his refurbishment shop to work through, but without new material coming in to sort through, he’s not sure how long the work can last.
Nationwide, e-waste collection events and drop-off points are closed, or people avoid them. Some towns and cities, like New York, have suspended curbside and municipal collection. Electronics recycling and IT asset businesses are considered essential and able to stay open. But many facilities are running with a trickle of supply, a skeleton staff, and uncertainty about what will happen when the world gets back to working and buying things.
“Some people will have more respect for used electronics, I think,” Shine said. “Beyond that, we have to do a lot of thinking about the future.”
Repair Shops Are Essential (and Tricky)
Alexandre Isaac runs a board repair school in Toulouse, France. He can’t train anyone in his facility, so he’s making an online training course. All the stock of tweezers, microscopes, and soldering equipment sold out in his online store, so he’s ordered more, but getting those goods shipped from China is a months-long process. He’s put research projects on newer phones and laptops aside while he focuses on the core business. As you can see in his recent streams and how-to videos, he has moved his microsoldering gear into his parents’ garage.
Isaac is repairing dozens of phones in that garage at the moment. He, too, thinks people might buy things differently after this experience. “The refurb industry, which provides a 30-50 percent discount on most phones, with a great quality, will certainly boom,” he said.
iPad Rehab, the microsoldering and data recovery shop where I recently trained, still has a full staff, working in masks. “We started out as stay at home moms, and now we have returned to those roots,” owner Jessa Jones wrote. Jones is also helping people set up businesses selling masks, and her shop is selling local moms’ masks (and funding some who make masks for donation).
At The Computer Cellar in Durham, N.C., Operations Manager Gabriel (who asked that we use only his first name) bought as many gloves and cleaning supplies as he could when the sheltering started. He navigated different city, county, and state laws and requirements. Customers now stand a few feet back from the check-in counter, or in a distance-taped line, and are asked to wash their hands in an accessible restroom before checking in.
There was an initial uptick of people needing refurbished computers, or a fix involving video conferencing, or a solution for spilling coffee on their laptop. But things are slowing down. There’s been a second bump after people received stimulus checks, Gabriel said, but if business continues at a mediocre pace, his shop will likely have to furlough people. And that’s without being able to offer the hazard pay Gabriel knows his workers deserve.
Gabriel said that having work to do, even with its inherent risks, is helping him manage the anxiety and stress of having employees, having elderly parents to care for, and everything else happening right now.
“I usually don’t think much of my job,” Gabriel wrote. “I fix computers—or argue with people that something in particular shouldn’t be fixed—and that doesn’t seem like much. But right now, with so many people relying on their laptops for one reason or another … it’s nice to feel like I’m doing something important. It may not be as vital and heroic as the work that doctors and nurses are out there doing every day, but it does feel like work with a real purpose.”