A person seated at a laptop with a headset.

ITAD company EPC reported a sharp increase in demand for notebook, tablet and desktop PCs throughout the U.S. and Canada as the need to work from home grows. | Sally B/Shutterstock

Processors across the U.S. say the coronavirus and resulting work-from-home orders have energized the market for refurbished electronics. In some cases, they can’t keep up with the needs of customers.

But despite swift sales of used devices and components, not all the news is good.

“There’s an uptick in demand, especially on the laptop side. The other side of that coin, unfortunately, is we’re not getting any new laptops in,” said Serdar Bankaci, president of CyberCrunch, which is based in Greensburg, Pa., outside of Pittsburgh.

“It’s a very scary time for every business, including ours,” he added later. “Yes, [the increased demand] is a silver lining, but if we don’t get more inventory, it’s going to be bad.”

Electronics recycling and ITAD companies told E-Scrap News they’re working to provide used computer equipment to customers, even as the spread of COVID-19 has closed some customers’ sites and, in some cases, the processing facilities themselves.

Providing a critical service in troubling times

Bob Houghton of reuse-focused processor Sage Sustainable Electronics of Columbus, Ohio sees a couple of factors driving “unprecedented demand for refurbished laptops, monitors and docking stations.” He said constrained supplies of new equipment from Asia, and the sudden migration to work-from-home and school-from-home are major trends that are colliding. A recent Wall Street Journal article covered both market issues.

“Sage has reserved most of its inventory for existing customers and their employees, many of whom are desperate to move to the safety of their homes,” he wrote in an email to E-Scrap News. “The entire Sage team is extremely proud to be of service to our communities during the crisis.”

ITAD company EPC, which is part of equipment leasing company CSI Leasing, is reporting a sharp increase in demand for notebook, tablet and desktop PCs throughout the U.S. and Canada as the need to work from home grows.

EPC is the ITAD vendor for thousands of U.S. organizations, and it processes over 120,000 IT assets monthly, many of which are computers employees can use when working remotely, EPC President Dan Fuller wrote in an email. The company has had several ITAD customers ask to redeploy assets they recently shipped to EPC for processing. Additionally, some customers that lease equipment from CSI Leasing are requesting the company redeploy their lease returns.

“We are definitely working hard to fill the IT supply needed to help keep people at home, curbing the spread of this pandemic,” Fuller wrote. “We will also continue to provide essential recycling and other IT disposition services to critical industries such as financial, medical and government entities as long as physically possible.”

The company’s Canadian ITAD arm, CSI Electronics Processing Centre (CSI EPC), is seeing the same trends, said Colin Taves, vice president and general manager of CSI EPC.

“CSI EPC is working diligently to address as many customer demands as we are able to given the unprecedented global pandemic we are experiencing with COVID-19 and the move to working remotely,” he said.

Buying frenzy across the board

In the San Francisco area, which has been on a lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, eWaste Direct of Livermore, Calif. has had to pause its regular pick-up services at businesses, according to the company’s founder, Angie Cardona-Nelson.

As prevention measures took hold, eWaste Direct started selling many computer monitors online for local pickup, with nearly every customer saying they were being used in a work-from-home situation, Cardona-Nelson said.

Then she started noticing online sales from around the U.S. for docking stations and laptop chargers. Now, working laptops are moving quickly.

“These sales are helping a lot to keep revenue coming in,” she wrote. “It’s our hope that the sales will continue, along with the government assistance for our team, and we will be able to navigate our way back to business as normal as soon as it’s safe.”

In Mineola, N.Y., which is on Long Island, Strategic Business Group (SBG) Distribution had to close its repair and refurbishment operation and concentrate instead on client relationships and selling used equipment, said Oren Hashemi, program manager for the company.

A repair-focused company that handles largely mobile phones and phone motherboards, SBG Distribution is seeing high demand right now. Hotspots, in particular, are selling like hotcakes in both domestic and overseas markets, which Hashemi attributes to employees wanting internet connectivity while working from home.

Hashemi said he’s finding that demand is returning in China, which has been a huge consumer of SBG’s repair stock (used computers that power on and have functional screens but still need some level of repair done). A Hong Kong contact of Hashemi’s told him Chinese companies are now being flooded with repair stock that American companies had been accumulating while China was on coronavirus lockdown in recent months.

Companies in Europe and the U.S. aren’t buying large quantities of repair stock, he said, so China is now able to drive down prices, Hashemi explained.

Barriers to sourcing equipment

In Pennsylvania, CyberCrunch is finding that with only about 50% of its normal quantity of material coming in the door, the company is going through its inventory of working electronics fast, Bankaci said.

With mandated closures, companies that normally supply used equipment to refurbishers aren’t able to get approvals to release assets because they’re focused on other concerns. Additionally, for many repair and refurbishment projects, CyberCrunch has to procure parts from Chinese companies, but those deliveries have been delayed.

Meanwhile, demand is high for both working equipment and components such as RAM, hard drives, screens and hinges, parts that other companies can use to fix equipment for resale, he explained. He’s even received a call for older-style CRTs used for medical equipment – CyberCrunch actually had a couple units on hand.

At this rate, Bankaci estimates he could blow through his inventory in about two months or so. To adapt, CyberCrunch has launched a used laptop rental program, through which CyberCrunch provides equipment with preloaded software to customers’ employees. He’s currently in discussions with a local government looking to rent about 100 units, he said.

Community connections

SBG Distribution on Long Island is also adapting its electronics-focused business to addressing an immediate need during the pandemic: coronavirus testing kits. The company partnered with Fidus SBG to distribute the GeneFinder COVID-19 Plus RealAmp Kit, according to its website.

“It’s something important for the community,” Hashemi said.

Another socially minded effort from an industry entity is underway in Michigan.

With schools closed, many students need computers to do their work from home. Schupan Asset Management, a for-profit processor based in Kalamazoo, Mich., is looking to supply computers to students without making a profit.

The company, which is the ITAD and e-scrap recycling arm of Schupan & Sons, recently donated refurbished Chromebook laptops to Kalamazoo Public Schools and the Kalamazoo Covenant Academy, all of which are closed by order of the governor. The school district distributed the computers to its high school seniors on March 23.

“In times like these, it isn’t about making a profit; it’s about doing the right thing,” Cory Pyscher, vice president of Schupan Asset Management, stated in a press release. “We have the next 50 years to make a profit. Right now, our community needs us.”

Despite the business struggles presented by COVID-19, Houghton of repair-focused processor Sage Sustainable Electronics noted there may be a silver lining for the used electronics industry.

“Life will return to normal, but not before many thousands of people have had a positive experience working on quality refurbished hardware,” he said. “This will make our message of value and sustainability even more compelling in the future.”

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Van Dyk