Planned Obsolescence and It’s Consequences

Chances are, you’ve heard someone from an older generation once say “things just aren’t made to last anymore!”, and chances are they’re right!. My grandpa had an old Plymouth  for nearly 40 years, these days we upgrade cars after 5-10 years or even less. Is this because in the modern age we all want the best and brightest? Maybe, but whats more likely is that electronics have a much shorter life span. There is actually a term for this policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, its called “planned obsolescence”. It originates as early as the light bulb with General Electric handing out fines if producers light bulbs lasted longer than 1,000 hours. What’s the purpose? – obviously to reduce the period of time between repeat purchases increasing profit. The consequence? – 50 million tons of E-waste every year..

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report, entitled Global e-waste systems – Insights for Australia from other developed countries said “In Japan, consumers do not have to pay a fee when recycling smaller e-waste, as they do for larger items. Meanwhile, in the US state of California, consumers incur an advance recovery fee. This fee is paid when buying devices such as TVs and laptops,”. This is certainly a good way to ensure devices get recycled and consumers are taking responsibility. In Australia the problem of e-waste is still in its infancy, e-waste is growing 3 times as fast as other waste categories (EIU Report), so Australia is going to have to adapt. E-waste not only effects the environment, but people too. Australia’s E-waste is shipped off to countries like Ghana in Africa or Guiyu in China where 80% of children suffer from lead poising (Greenpeace). The electronics are burnt in order to create space which releases toxic fumes into the air, they are then picked apart to find the precious metals like gold and silver, so they can sell them and make a small reward.

Toxics e-waste documentation (China : 2005)

A child sitting amongst cables in Guiyu, China. (Greenpeace)

One computer can contain lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (The guardian, 2013) which when burnt creates catastrophic pollution that is ingested through the drinking water, air and becomes part of the soil that they grow their crops in. Even more alarming is the majority of people who work on the dump sites are children.

But instead of just looking at how to better recycle electronics, shouldn’t we be looking at how to make them last longer and who’s responsible for that?. Solutions need to be found “upstream” in the way electronics are manufactured and consumed in the first place. A viable solution to this problem has in fact been created, its called the Fairphone.  The Fairphone contains conflict free minerals, is built by employees who are paid fair factory wages, is easily recyclable, durable, repairable and actually costs less than an iPhone. It costs approximately $795 Aus dollars compared to an iPhone 6 which retails for about $930. The Step Initiative is another organisation run by the United Nations set up to tackle the E-waste problem and is releasing annual reports to create awareness. Western countries can not continue to dump their own waste and the problems that go a long with it on poorer countries who have no choice but to live with it.

 

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