Planned obsolescence is when we feel compelled to buy new gadgets, even when the old ones work perfectly. And it has big consequences.
There’s no denying that Canadians love their stuff—after all, each one of us threw out nearly 1,610 lb (730 kg) of stuff in 2010. Unfortunately, a significant portion of this trash is made up of last year’s cellphones, last season’s sneakers, and other perfectly serviceable goods that just aren’t “fashionable” anymore.
The idea of encouraging us to turf out perfectly good sneakers or toss a still-functioning cellphone, however, is one that many companies have been pushing for quite some time.
The idea itself is called “planned obsolescence,” and the term was first coined by industrial designer Clifford Brooks Stevens in 1954. Overall, planned obsolescence describes the various means by which manufacturers leave us wanting (or perhaps needing) something a little newer, a little more efficient, and a little more fashionable. And it’s a tool that many manufacturers are rather adept at wielding.
Some different types of planned obsolescence include
- designs that make repairing a damaged product difficult or impossible
- designs that are meant to wear out before the product itself does
- products that need other products or services to maintain them
- “death dating,” where a product is built with certain fragile components, causing the whole unit to fail once those components have broken
Old but serviceable laptops, top-loading laundry machines, and updated software are some other examples of items that can (or did) fall victim to planned obsolescence.
The idea of having consumers coming back for the latest and greatest each year may be great for manufacturers and retailers alike, but this explosion of goods into our homes—and eventually our landfills—can cause serious repercussions on our health and the environment.
The stinking results
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” doesn’t exactly apply when the many goods we no longer find “good enough” make their way into local landfills.
Electronic goods, for instance, are known to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flame retardants, as well as heavy metals such as lead, chromium, cadmium, and mercury. These chemicals and metals have been linked to various cancers, developmental disorders, disorders of the reproductive system, and a laundry list of other serious health concerns.
However, outdated appliances—including washers, dryers, stoves, refrigerators, and many other machines for modern convenience—carry their own less-than-ideal components. Fridges, for instance, use the aptly named chemicals known as “refrigerants” to keep our eggs cool and our ice cubes frozen.
Commonly used refrigerants include ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons, all of which can affect our health. Older fridges may use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were banned in 1996 due to their nature as ozone-depleting substances.
Couches are another known carrier of toxic flame retardants. Meanwhile, both couches and mattresses are often treated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which disrupt normal organ and immune function in animal studies and take years to break down.
When these computers, fridges, and other consumer products end up in the landfill, the normally dangerous chemicals they contain slowly leach out into the surrounding soil and groundwater or dissipate into the air.
And throwing away perfectly good or prematurely dated products, of course, only makes the matter worse.
Steps in the right (green) direction
When it comes to getting rid of old goods in an ethical manner, the old mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” still rings true. Most of our no-longer-loved purchases can be diverted from landfills and instead be repurposed, recycled, or re-homed.
In the case of electronic waste—old laptops, computers, cellphones, printers, or other electronics—Canadians deserve a well-earned pat on the back. A 2011 survey from Statistics Canada found that only 3 percent of us sent an unloved computer or laptop to the landfill, while 5 percent of TV trashers and 5 percent of cellphone upgraders chose less-than-sustainable options for their e-waste.
And it’s no wonder we have such a stellar record, considering the many programs, organizations, and incentives that Canadians can access when it comes to ethical disposal of electronics.
Some organizations will accept donations of old laptops, computers, and printers—whether or not they turn on. Depending on the organization, they may take the donated electronics apart and recycle them, and/or use components of broken electronics to refurbish others. The resulting (functioning) electronics are then sold or donated. A quick online search can lead you to the nearest recycling organization.
Meanwhile, many stores have electronics take-back programs that accept most electronic devices. Find a participating store at the Electronic Products Recycling Association’s website (recyclemyelectronics.ca). Don’t forget to bring your old batteries! Many participating stores recycle those, too.
Appliances and furniture
Canadians are a rather eco-friendly lot; more than two-thirds of Canadians who replaced their major appliances in 2009 reported that energy or water consumption was their most important consideration when buying a new appliance.
However, that still leaves a lot of older and less energy- and water-efficient models out there to be disposed of. While it may not seem as simple or convenient to remove dated appliances—large or small—from the household, we’re luckily still offered plenty of options.
Many provinces have specific take-back programs and recycling facilities in place. Appliances can be dropped off at the facilities or picked up at your doorstep and properly recycled or otherwise disposed of. If you’re lucky, your provincial government might have an incentive program in place where they’ll pay you to remove your old appliances!
Meanwhile, a smattering of organizations and programs exist where saggy sectionals, old mattresses, and other dated furniture can be dismantled and recycled, often for a fee.
If these programs don’t exist in your area, there are still options. Go to any number of websites where you can give away your old furniture to anyone looking to furnish a new apartment or dorm room on the cheap, or ask around to see if a local business, nonprofit, or other organization is looking for a free couch to line a waiting room or lounge.
The bottom line
In the end, the best way to ensure your eco-conscience remains light (and your wallet remains heavy) is to be a conscious consumer.
Next time you find yourself eyeing that shiny new 30 inch monitor or sleek sectional, ask yourself if your slightly smaller monitor or current couch still serve their functions well, or if there’s an easy way—such as throwing a cover on top of the cat-scratched cushions—to breathe new life into these old items.
There’s no denying that we live in a throwaway society. And the most effective way to show manufacturers and retailers that we’re no longer interested in upgrading our goods every few years is simply to stop doing it.
In 1992, Canada became a signatory to the Basel Convention, a global agreement under the United Nations to control the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and their disposal. The Convention works to reduce the production of hazardous waste, such as heavy metal and toxic chemicals found in our old laptops and cellphones, and promote eco-friendly options to get rid of this waste.
Under the Convention, Canada regulates the transport of all e-waste, making it illegal for recyclers to ship old computer components overseas. However, many Canadians are concerned that their e-waste is still illegally shipped overseas to be dismantled in poorly regulated ways.
One way to make sure that our end-of-life e-waste is being managed ethically is to educate ourselves about who’s doing the recycling. Provincial recyclers have standards and mandates in place, making them safe options for eco-friendly recyclers.
Most private recyclers also have their own standards. But, to avoid leaving products with those unscrupulous few, don’t be afraid to ask questions to learn where the e-waste goes and what happens to it once it’s been shredded or dismantled.