Today’s most popular technological gadgets come with obsolescence built right in. Manufacturers like Apple practically require — or at least encourage — consumers to abandon their perfectly functional devices for the newest replacement on the market. Millions of models of the iPhone 7 have already been sold, and many loyal Apple customers choose to embrace the “out with the old, in with the new” adage.
Not only do consumers love to get their hands on the newest devices, but in many cases, companies make it difficult for customers to forgo an upgrade. For instance, Apple’s latest operating system, iOS10, uses many features available only on the iPhone 6 and subsequent models. Even popular apps are encouraging customers to forgo their trusted, older devices: Facebook and Whatsapp recently announced that they’ll stop providing app support for older models of the Blackberry. Software updates often favor the latest version of a given gadget, thus compelling consumers to invest in the newest devices in order to have a better quality experience.
This built-in technological obsolescence has a big effect on business for these companies — not just for smartphones, computers, tablets, and printers, but for household appliances, too. The amount of new appliances sold to replace defective ones increased from 3.5% to 8.3% from 2004 to 2012, according to a report from ENDS Europe. The amount of large household appliances that required replacement within the first five years also grew from 7% to 13% from 2004 to 2013. Since even the revenues of consumer electronics and appliance rental in the U.S. are expected to grow to $5.7 billion by 2016, it’s clear that businesses actually want to ensure their devices will become obsolete in the not-so-distant future.
But this notable increase in electronic consumption and replacement has significant adverse effects on our environment, the most important of which is that these discarded devices are rarely repaired, reused, or resold. Instead, they just produce a whole lot of waste.
Although waste has been produced for as long as we’ve used electronics, the difference lies in the sheer quantity and speed of disposal. In the past, families would often keep television sets for more than a decade, but today’s reality is that a device is rarely kept for longer than a couple of years. Furthermore, the production of new devices is relatively inexpensive and new purchases are often preferable to the inconvenience or high costs associated with the repair of a device. Although the push for consumers to purchase new devices is hardly a new concept, the electronic waste these thrown-out gadgets produce has become a worldwide ecological issue.
The U.S. has regulations in place about how and where electronic waste can be recycled, but the majority of gadgets end up in landfills. In 2012, only 29% of e-waste generated from electronic sales was recycled. As a result of improper disposal, electronic waste toxins may enter the surrounding soil and water supplies. The air can be polluted when scroungers burn the waste in order to obtain the copper inside. Used electronics often contain hazardous materials such as mercury, lead, and flame-retardants, as well as valuable raw materials like gold, titanium, and platinum. Not only can this e-waste have a negative impact on our planet, but it has the potential to cause emotional or financial damage to former owners. Most of this electronic waste also contains operational devices that may contain sensitive, intact data that could potentially be used to hurt consumers in a variety of ways.
So what can be done? Neither consumers nor manufacturers can completely bear the burden of blame alone, but programs need to be implemented to ensure manufacturers and consumers work together to reduce the waste produced. Of course, manufacturers will want to continue implementing planned obsolescence into their devices — this is a main reason why sales are constantly high — but viable suggestions for improvement include equipment buy-back programs, government-issued tax rebates for repurposed devices, recycling and reusing parts of devices, device resale, or committing to repair. Though it may be tempting to invest in the newest gadget — and companies further stress the necessity of doing so by manipulating software to give consumers that extra push — you may want to hold off until it’s absolutely necessary. Above all, in order to address this environmental problem, the government needs to step in to regulate e-waste and the companies that are responsible for producing it.