Finally, some proof that refurbished smartphones help the planet

Some proof in the refurbished pudding
Finally, some proof that refurbished smartphones help the planet

Back Market, like a lot of other companies, was founded on a hunch. Ours was that refurbished electronics could be a driver for reducing e-waste and a sustainable alternative to buying new devices (and everything that comes along with that: carbon emissions, pollution, depletion of water and raw materials).

It looks like we were right.

Back in October 2020, we brought an idea to ADEME, the French Environment and Energy Management Agency: to quantify the environmental impact of the refurbished electronics industry worldwide. 

ADEME has released preliminary results on the environmental impact of refurbished smartphones. The full report — a one-of-a-kind study that’s never been done before — will be published in the coming months and will include data on the global impact of refurbished computers, tablets, and other electronics.

(Note: Back Market did not support the study financially; it only suggested the idea to ADEME.)

Here are 4 key figures about how refurbished smartphones help the planet:

1. A single refurbished smartphone prevents 6.17 oz (175 g) of e-waste
Each brand new smartphone generates about 7.01 oz (199 g) of e-waste. A refurbished smartphone, just 0.84 oz (24 g) — that’s 88% less!

If you’ve ever held 2 regular-sized onions in your hand, that’s about the amount of e-waste a refurbished smartphone saves from the landfill (6.17 oz or 175 g, to be exact). Two onions might not seem like much but every bit adds up. 

In just the first quarter of 2021, Apple sold 58 million smartphones. Samsung sold 76 million smartphones. If even half of those sales were replaced by refurbished smartphones, the world would have saved 12,924 US tons (11,725,000 kg) of electronic waste.

2. A refurbished smartphone prevents 568.8 lbs (258 kg) of raw materials from being mined
Anyone who’s had a new smartphone has been a gold digger by default. Raw materials like gold, silver, aluminum, copper, cobalt, chrome — at least 15 different types — are needed to manufacture a single smartphone. All that digging around amounts to about 619 lbs (281 kg) of earth dug up to get a tiny bit of the metals and minerals needed. 

It’s a little ridiculous, especially if all those resources are tossed back to the earth as trash in just a few years. Not-so-fun fact: there’s more gold in 1 ton of e-waste than in 1 ton of gold ore. With manufacturers pumping out 1.4 billion smartphones a year, you don’t need to be good at math to get that we’re depleting our natural resources at an unsustainable rate.

Refurbished smartphones require much fewer raw materials (50.3 lbs or 22.8 kg if you replace the battery and the screen) and actually help us get the most out of the resources that have already been exploited. Waste not want not.

Statistic: Global smartphone shipments forecast from 2010 to 2022 (in million units) | Statista

3. A refurbished smartphone prevents 175.66 lbs (79.68 kg) of carbon emissions
Given the amount of energy and resources manufacturing a new smartphone requires, it’s no surprise that around 90% of a device’s carbon footprint is emitted before it ever leaves the factory

For a new smartphone, that’s 190 lbs (86.5 kg) of carbon emissions — which is like driving roundtrip from NYC to Philly in an SUV 1.4 times. (A roundtrip drive from NYC to Philly is about 3.5 hours).

A refurbished smartphone produces 15 lbs (6.82 kg) of CO2e, from end-to-end. That includes the entire repair lifecycle (from sourcing spare parts to delivery).

4. A refurbished smartphone saves 18,068 gallons (68,400 liters) of water
That’s enough water to get your daily recommended 8 glasses of water (2 liters) a day for almost 94 years.

To put it into perspective, a brand new smartphone sucks about 112 human-years-worth of drinking water (21,741 gallons or 82,300 liters), most of which is used for mining and extracting raw materials.

By going refurbished you’re using 83% less water. Plus, you might also be earning some karma points for giving back to the fountain of life.


Buying a refurbished smartphone isn’t going to save the world, but it looks like it can help

There’s a lot going wrong when it comes to how the world manufactures and consumes smartphones. But thanks to this new study, we can say with some certainty that it’s possible to make a difference without too much effort. 

Buying refurbished is a small gesture that can have a significant collective impact on climate change. Maybe it’s time to give it a go.


Camille Richard, Sustainable Development Manager
By Camille Richard, Sustainable Development Manager

Facts and feels about tech and the planet. But mostly facts.

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