Native Village
Youth and Education news
November 1, 2010, Volume 4

What's Greener: A Refurbed Laptop or a New One?
Condensed by Native Village

According to a survey by Resource Recycling, sales of refurbished electronics have dropped. Why? Because retailers are flooding the market with new devices in the same price range but packed with new features.

So are newer computers really a better deal than refurbished models? And which kind is better for the planet?

Environmentally speaking, refurbished computers are the clear winners. "An astonishing amount of resources go into making these products," says Barbara Kyle of Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

According to a 2003 UN study, the manufacture of one desktop computer requires

  • 48 pounds of chemicals

  • 1.7 tons of water

  • 529 pounds of fossil fuels


"The more we can reuse old products, the fewer new resources need to be extracted," says Kyle. It also reduces the world's giant pile of e-waste which grows bigger every day.

While newer computers are more energy efficient, about 80% of the energy consumed in a desktop's lifetime is used to produce it. Only 20% is consumed during it's use.

The price of a refurbished computer depends on hardware age, software packages, and warranties. They are often  half the price of a brand new machine.  In many cases refurbished models will last just as long as new ones.

Willie Cade and others from PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, recently outfitted 2001 desktop PCs with the latest software. College students then did "blind tests" to compare refurbished computers with new ones.  36% of the students couldn't tell the difference.

People keep their new computers for an average of 2.5 years, but most can last a whole lot longer if you upgrade the software.

"People often think computers slow down after a year or two," says Cade. "But that's usually a problem with the software -- either there's too much of it or it's not working efficiently. If you refresh or clean up the software, it will usually get quicker."

According to Cade, if you refresh your computer's software after year 2, you can extend a laptop's life for three years and 5-6 years for desktops.

What you should look for if you're buying a refurbished computer:

If you're getting rid of a computer, do it responsibly. Chances are it can be fixed and sold or donated to someone else.

  • Make sure the software is legally licensed and genuine so you get the necessary updates.  In the Microsoft world, that means being a member of the Microsoft Refurbisher Program.

  • It should also come with a three-year warranty and a tech help phone number. Cade says if it says 30 days -- run away.

  • Make sure your refurbisher is registered and/or authorized.

  • pays cash for used computers and gadgets.

  • PC Rebuilders and Recyclers will sell your spiffed-up computer to a needy school or organization for about a third of the cost of new. 

  • Earth911 has a list of organizations that accept donations of old computers.

  • The EPA has more resources on its website.

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