Solid Waste & Recycling


Short-term thinking on electronic gadgets

Since it’s just after Christmas I thought readers might enjoy this thought provoking article about electronic gadgets such as cell phones that we replace very frequently in our wasteful culture.
Getting Over Our Two-Year Itch
New York Times, December 31, 2010
Every year, we buy zillions of music players, digital cameras and cellphones — and then, a couple of years later, send them to the nearest trash bin. “New every two” isn’t just Verizon’s offer to sell you a new, discounted phone every 24 months; it also describes the average person’s consumption habits for cameras, phones and other gadgets.
Unfortunately, no matter how well intentioned the consumer, it’s hard to fulfill that pledge to recycle, at least when it comes to electronic gadgetry. The phrase “sustainable electronics manufacturing” is almost an oxymoron, like “humble actor.”
That’s because the electronics industry itself is built upon frequent renewal. The iPhone, iPod or iPad you buy today will be obsolete within a year. Every pocket camera model on sale today will no longer be sold six months from now. And Android phones — forget it. They seem to come out every Friday afternoon.
Does technology really advance that quickly? Or is planned obsolescence at work? It doesn’t matter. In the end, we’re as much to blame as the electronics companies. The manufacturers are simply catering to some fundamental human drives. It’s style; it’s status; it’s the confidence of knowing that we’re not missing out on anything. Owning outdated technology makes us feel outdated ourselves.
Are there solutions? In hopes of harnessing much brighter brain power, I asked my 1.3 million followers on Twitter for suggestions.
The response was surprisingly lively and voluminous. Unfortunately, most people weren’t hopeful. “It’s not the gadgets — it’s the people,” wrote @calcrash. “We have an entire A.D.D. generation that demands new toys and features.”
A sizable number of people suggested that the industry should stop cranking out so many models so often. As @jatkin02 wrote, “Gadget does one thing, does it well, does it forever by design, with as few fail points as possible.” Several respondents pointed out that a Rolex watch is so finely crafted that it’s handed down through generations.
Sounds good on paper — or on Twitter. Unfortunately, electronics aren’t watches. They’re expected to explode in functions each year, to leapfrog what has come before. Your son might be proud to receive your 30-year-old Rolex — but a 4-year-old cellphone would just embarrass him.
Another enthusiastic group proposed designing gadgets to be more modular — popping a newer, faster chip into your old cellphone, for instance.
This proposal, too, is unrealistic. What’s in it for the manufacturers? It’s much more profitable for them to sell you a whole new gadget. Besides, there’s more to a gadget than its processor. The current iPhone, for example, has not just a different chip than the previous model but also a different screen, battery, interior electronics and connectors. Everything is integrated.
A third, equally doomed suggestion: rely on software upgrades, not new hardware, to add new features each year. Sure, but many manufacturers already do that. Apple’s annual software updates for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch add new features to previous years’ models. Google’s frequently enhanced versions of the Android phone software are generally available to all older phone models as well. Microsoft’s Xbox upgrades benefit older generations of the game console, too.
In each case, though, new software can take you only so far. You can’t add video-recording features to a phone that doesn’t have a camera.
Fortunately, my Twitter focus group did come up with suggestions that would take us to a greener gadget world — without denying the public its “new every two” or depriving the manufacturers of their profits. For example:
• “Include prepaid recycling envelopes with new gadgets, like HP does with ink cartridges, to encourage recycling instead of trashing,” wrote @megazone. Most computer companies already offer free but little-known recycling programs for old gadgets, so this suggestion could work.
• Standardize connectors and accessories. In Europe, for example, every cellphone uses the same kind of power cord — micro USB — so people no longer accumulate boxes of orphaned, incompatible adapters. In time, manufacturers could stop including these standard cables in every box, saving money and redundancy.
• “Make recycling mandatory or charge a fee,” @eclisham suggested. And @timqpeterson proposed a bribe to slow down the upgrade cycle — a “rebate option for keeping the same phone for more than a specific amount of time.”
• Persuade the industry to use more recyclable materials, like biodegradable plastics. Some companies, including Apple, have developed amazingly minimalist packaging, which sends as little material as possible to the landfill.
Good suggestions. But what would make manufacturers adopt them? Since the current disposability model is supremely profitable, what incentive do they have to change?
Well, the government could get involved. After all, the European Union manufacturers standardized their cellphone power cords only after it was mandated. Companies adopting sustainable materials like corn or soy oil for their plastics could earn tax breaks. New laws could require recycling or encourage longer gadget use.
For those not so keen on government mandates, there is consumer pressure. Whether it’s hormone-free milk or organic cotton clothing, if an issue bubbles up, change happens. Perhaps sustainability could become a marketing tool, not a hidden cost.
Time could also mitigate the problem. When a product matures — when the feature list becomes standard — our incentive to buy “new every two” declines. For example, who buys a new PC every other year anymore? Nobody buys a new TV every other year, or a clock radio, or even a camcorder. Surely cellphones, cameras and GPS units will get there someday.
For now, you can recycle your old gadget. Take or mail your old electronics to a Radio Shack or a Best Buy store. Both accept a huge range of old junk, like TVs, printers, monitors, cables, cellphones, remotes and headphones. And you get more than the rosy glow of doing the right thing; depending on your state, you can also get either an instant discount or a gift card, good toward future purchases. Here are the details on the Best Buy program and Radio Shack’s.
Or look into Web sites like, the largest “recommerce” site. Gazelle pays shipping both ways (even sends you a box), pays you for your old electronics, then resells it on eBay or recycles it.
My Twitter followers also recommended (you give away your gear), and (provides old phones to victim services organizations for emergency use).
So there are steps you can take now, and there is some hope for longer-term change. In the meantime, cheer up: new models of gadgets like cellphones tend to get smaller over time. At the very least, that means they take up less space in the landfill every year.

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