How long will you keep your phone?
a) Until your contract expires after 24 months?
b) Until the screen breaks and you can’t see what your doing?
c) Until the battery stops working?
d) Until it can’t support the updates it requires to run anymore?
This, dear friends, is what is known as planned obsolescence, and it has catastrophic consequences for the environment. Today when you buy new technology, it’s lifespan is around 1-3 years, white goods have a lifespan of between 2-10 years based on common warranty lengths. A few decades ago, white goods were some of the biggest purchases people made costing several months salary, and they were designed to last a lot longer, however as prices have dropped, and technology has moved forward, the product lifecycle is shrinking, phones and common technology now only come with warranties of 12 months or less. The key question we ought to be considering as we rush out to replace our phones, laptops and fridges is what is happening to all that waste?
I am on my third I-phone, my fourth mobile, and my second laptop. It is often easier and cheaper to buy new products then it is to fix our old technology, which is part of the key to planned obsolescence. Internationally demand for technology is only growing as countries like China and India increase their purchasing power. As Maxwell and Miller state in their introduction to Greening the Media,
“The EU is expected to generate upward of 12 million tonnes of e-waste annually by 2020”
This harmful waste is made up of plastics, metals and chemicals, all combining as they are broken down to create a toxic waste product. Most Western countries like Australia send their e-waste to third world countries, often illegally, disguised as functional second hand goods. These countries then become dumping grounds for our insatiable tech habit, breaking old goods apart to extract the valuable metals and recyclable parts, often being poisoned in the process.
So what on earth are we to do? France has recently passed laws requiring manufacturers to state how long their products are intended to last and making a two year warranty a necessity in a bid to fight planned obsolescence. Alternatively to government regulation, recycling much of our tech and white goods is also a viable option, as long as it is not exported, as well as buy back schemes which are gaining traction as more of us become aware of the problems with our need for new technology and the un-sustainablity of the current model.
For a slightly terrifying overview of the environmental problems related to planned obsolescence check out this video, part of the The Story of Stuff project by Annie Lemming: