Planned obsolescence shortens longevity of electronics

According to the 2012 Accenture Consumer Electronics Products and Services Usage Report, the highest selling products in 2012 were smart phones, high-definition TVs, computers and tablet PCs. About 23 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds are high consumers, meaning they buy at least two new electronics a year.

Think about it.

How many iPods or MP3 players have you gone through in the past five years? How many iPhones or cell phones? Computers? TVs?

Personally, I’ve gone through three iPods, two iPhones, two TVs and two computers and this high technology consumption isn’t because I need the latest and greatest, but because these products malfunctioned after their warranty dates. If that doesn’t prove these products were made not to last, I don’t know what would.

Planned obsolescence or built-to-break-down in industrial design is the policy of planning or designing a product with a limited life span. The product was made with the intent to become obsolete, unfashionable or nonfunctional after a certain period of time.

Planned obsolescence is only beneficial for the company that makes these products. Tricking the consumer into believing they are paying for a valuable product that will last a lifetime is part of the deal.  A company’s mindset is to make a product that is cutting edge, market it and sell thousands or millions around the world. They then make slight differences to an updated version of the product, which causes the consumer to believe they are falling behind on the latest trend and want to buy the latest product. Or better yet, the company designs the product to malfunction right after the warranty expires causing the consumer to yet again, buy the latest product. It’s a trend that keeps you buying.

We shouldn’t just be concerned about planned obsolescence as technology consumers but as environmentalists. The amount of minerals, chemicals and labor that go into making these products is excessive. Earth is a finite planet. It has its limits. We should not use up the resources on our planet to create an iPhone that is 18 percent thinner than the last.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates over 438 million electronic devices were sold and 25 percent of e-waste or electronic waste was collected for recycling in 2009. At that rate, there will be over a billion devices made per year and even more taking up space in a landfill.

The disposal of these products is even worse. Each year we produce 25 million tons of hazardous e-waste, which gets dumped, burned or reused to make another product. Recycling e-waste is nearly impossible to do because electronics are coated with chemicals such as lead, mercury and flame-retardants. Also, once these hazardous chemicals are combined in electronics, there is no way to scientifically unbind them.

“What people don’t understand is that electronics we throw away are shipped overseas because companies don’t know what to do with them. Other countries like Africa and China are forced to deal with our mess. It’s usually children and people who are in extreme poverty who burn down the plastics that then go into the atmosphere,” Lauren Smith, environmental studies major at SF State, said. “We are producing, producing, producing. They incinerate it and rural communities burn them. Instead of salvaging them, they just get burned and cause medical problems. Instead of going back to the people that made it.”

One solution for planned obsolescence is a “product take back” program. Some companies use this program to take back broken products and refurbish them with new parts. This means longer lasting products and less toxic materials being made. Many state and local governments, electronics manufacturers and non-profit organizations have created take back programs. California enacted the Electronic Waste Recycling Act (Senate Bill 50) into law in 2004. Maine, Maryland, Texas and Washington have also enacted similar laws requiring the collection of certain electronics.

As consumers we can take some steps in stopping planned obsolescence. Buy refurbished electronics, as they will function like new and less resources and harmful chemicals went into making them. Second, don’t buy a product because it’s the upgraded version of what you have. That simply shows the company that you are willing to consume everything they give you. Also, pay attention to warranty. If possible, buy a longer warranty, because if anything happens to your product the company will be bound to take care of it. Finally, there has to be a discussion between companies, consumers and environmentalists. Companies need to know the world isn’t full of infinite materials and consumers want a product that will last a lifetime. Making a profit is only good for the company, at the end of the day it shouldn’t be the most important thing.