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Obsolete by Design

Stemming the tide of too much

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Obsolete by Design

Look around your home, and chances are, you're surrounded by a lot of stuff. How much of that stuff do you want to get rid of because it's old, outdated, or all of a sudden uncool?

Look around your home, and chances are, you’re surrounded by a lot of stuff. How much of that stuff do you want to get rid of because it’s old, outdated, or all of a sudden uncool?

But come on: how much of that stuff do you really have to replace? Do you genuinely need a new computer screen, DVD player, cellphone, couch, or carpet, or have you become a pawn in a manufacturer’s game?

Planned obsolescence

The name of the game is planned obsolescence. The term describes the deliberate process by which manufacturers make products that become useless, out of date, or out of fashion within a specific (usually short) time frame. Consumers then toss the old model and buy a new one, boosting profits as well as landfills.

“The Industrial Revolution enabled us to produce too many things for us to consume,” explains Giles Slade, the Richmond, BC, author of the book Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America(Harvard University Press, 2006).

“So manufacturers and marketers had to find ways for us to consume them. That’s where branding, packaging, disposable items, and planned obsolescence come in. Basically, we’re nose deep in garbage, and we’re running out of resources to make things with.

“It’s not as if they can’t design things that last. Of course we have the technology to make things last,” Slade adds. “People need to recognize when they’re being manipulated by marketing. Otherwise we’re all contributing to the growth machine that’s consuming everything on our planet and making a dark future for our kids.”

Planned obsolescence itself is nothing new. American industrial designer Brooks Stevens coined the term in 1954, explaining it at an advertising conference as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

Disposable culture

What has changed, however, is the sheer volume of items we’re buying and discarding soon after, electronic products in particular. The damage our disposable culture is doing to the planet is escalating at a perilous pace.

International environmental health and sustainability expert Annie Leonard, the force behind The Story of Stuff, a must-see online documentary, describes planned obsolescence as another word for “designed for the dump.” “It means they actually make stuff that is designed to be useless as quickly as possible so we will chuck it and go buy a new one,” Leonard explains in her film (storyofstuff.com). “It’s obvious with stuff such as plastic bags and coffee cups, but now it’s even big stuff: mops, DVDs, cameras, barbecues even, everything.

“Even computers,” she adds. “Have you noticed that when you buy a computer now, the technology is changing so fast that within a couple years, it’s actually an impediment to communication?

“I was curious about this so I opened up a big desktop computer to see what was inside. And I found out that the piece that changes each year is just a tiny little piece in the corner. But you can’t just change that one piece, because each new version is a different shape, so you gotta chuck the whole thing and buy a new one.”

Alexandra McPherson, North American project director of Clean Production Action, an international environmental nonprofit group, says that companies need to shift away from all things disposable and instead develop solutions for sustainability, including the use of green chemicals.

“The reason we have such a waste crisis – and it is a crisis –  is that most … products are not designed to last, and they’re not designed to be reused and recycled,” McPherson says.

Techno trash

Obsolete electronic products are the fastest growing source of waste and one of the most menacing threats to the environment, according to Ted Smith, chair of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an American umbrella organization of nonprofit groups promoting responsible and sustainable production. He points to computer chips as a prime example of planned obsolescence.

“A new generation of computer chips comes along every 18 months,” Smith says. “What this is really doing is turning us into voracious consumers. What we have is a totally unsustainable model.

“Oftentimes it’s cheaper to throw something away than to fix it. There’s something really wrong with that. Planned obsolescence really is the business model of the high-tech revolution; billions of dollars have been made on that.

“Millions and millions of electronic products are disposed of every year,” Smith adds. “They’re toxic and environmentally destructive, and people throw them in the garbage, so they end up in landfills.”

Much of the harmful electronic waste collected for recycling in North America is exported to developing countries. There people work in “e-waste yards,” which have few health and safety regulations, exposing themselves to hazardous materials every day.

Manufacturer responsibility

North America also needs to follow the lead of the European Union, which has a law called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), Smith notes. With EPR manufacturers are accountable for the entire life cycle of their products, including the post-consumer phase and the ensuing environmental and human health effects. If a corporation uses toxic materials, for instance, it has to take that product back when a consumer is finished with it.

“If companies have to collect and recycle their products, then it’s in their own economic interest to design products that are less toxic, that are easier to recycle, that last a little longer,” Smith explains.

Consumer responsibility

There are steps people can take to be part of the solution.

Take back: To combat so much electronic dumping, find out which companies have their own take-back programs and which ones don’t. (Visit the Electronics TakeBack Coalition website at computertakeback.com.)

“Too often consumers are not willing to take the time to send something back to the manufacturers; it’s easier to just throw it in the trash,” McPherson says.

The three Rs: The mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” definitely applies. Waste less, urges Leonard, offering suggestions such as getting printer cartridges refilled instead of replaced and upgrading your computer instead of buying a new one.

Less is best: “Our current paradigm dictates that more stuff is better, that infinite economic growth is desirable and possible, and that pollution is the price of progress,” Leonard’s Story of Stuff states. “To really turn things around, we need to nurture a different paradigm based on the values of sustainability, justice, health, and community.”

When you do need to shop, buy green, stay local, and look for used instead of new. “But buying less may be the best option of all,” Leonard says. “Less pollution, less waste, less time working to pay for the stuff. Sometimes less really is more.”

Perceived obsolescence: Be wary of perceived obsolescence, which convinces people to get rid of items even if they’re still completely useful. Manufacturers change the way products look so that things that are even a year or two old look, well, old. Think thinner cellphones, lighter portable DVD players, and sleeker computers.

Buying a fantasy: “People need to get a lot more conscious about what it is they’re buying and why they’re buying it,” Slade says. “Often they’re [manufacturers] selling a fantasy: products say who you are, how professional you are, how stylish you are.”

Smith, too, says it’s vital for consumers to avoid the marketing trap. “People are starting to get overloaded with all the crap they see,” Smith says. “They need to ask themselves, ‘Do I really need the latest gadget all the time?

The verdict seems clear: the first thing people need to throw out is throwaway thinking.

Statistics about stuff

The statistics related to disposable stuff are staggering.

  • 1%: The percentage of materials still in use six months after purchase.
  • 140,000 tones: Total amount of e-waste Canadians dump into landfills each year, according to Environment Canada.
  • 20 to 50 million tonnes: Total amount of global e-waste each year, as estimated by the United Nations, with little of it being recycled.
  • FIVE: Number of planets we would need if everyone consumed at present American rates, according to Annie Leonard.
  • 1/3: Amount of the planet’s natural resources that have been consumed in the last three decades alone.
  • 75%: Portion of the world’s major fish stocks that are being fished at or beyond their limit.
  • 80%: Amount of Earth’s original forests that are gone.

Recycling e-waste

For links to electronic companies’ and provincial and territorial recycling programs, go to the Electronics Product Stewardship Canada website at epsc.ca/r_links.html.

Chemical contaminants

E-waste contains hundreds of harmful materials. As these substances break down in landfills, they can leach toxic chemicals into the groundwater, such as:

  • Chlorinated solvents
  • Brominated flame retardants
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • Heavy metals such as lead and mercury (LCDs use mercury to light their screens)
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