Is the Earth Doomed Due to Planned Obsolescence?
Man is a clever species. Technology has allowed us to advance more than any other species before us. We sit as masters of our small blue planet. However we are not masters when it comes to ideas that are sustainable. With modern capitalism came the idea of planned obsolescence; the idea that designers should build into products a self-destruct mechanism. How did such a crazy idea come into being? What does it mean for the planet? And can we escape this circle of waste?
Where does the idea come from?
An idea is often marked with the symbol of a light bulb. The light bulb was also the first product that was purposely designed with flaws. The ever increasing life expectancy of light bulbs frightened bulb manufactures. It would of course stem demand. Demand and growth are key to our modern capitalism system. Demand and growth are dependent on our needs or perceived needs. A light bulb is quite a simple product with little need for new models. Therefore the bulb companies formed a cartel and agreed to limit the life of bulbs to 1000 hours. With this they secured the need that drove their business forward.
Apple’s iPod has been the focus of an environmental campaign due to its extremely short battery life. Image courtesy of Stay Free Magazine.
Today, designers purposefully limit the quality of products. Companies employ our best minds to create a product that fills the criteria that they demand and not what the consumer demands. If a printer manufacturer decides that a printer should print 20000 copies but then stop then the designer builds it to do that. Even if that means including a chip that records how many copies have been made and on the 20001 copy sends the error message that the printer has an internal error.
What does it mean for the Planet?
Would you really replace your printer every few years or you mobile phone every 6 months if it continued to work? OK Mobiles are something of a status symbol and many people replace them for the newest model, but boring products such as printers, radios or cookers are less likely to replaced before they go wrong. The resulting waste is of course deadly for the environment.
Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing sources of waste according to the UNEP. It is also an especially dangerous form of waste as it contains many heavy metals and toxic plastics. The rich world has found a place to put its electronic waste though: the developing world. They need computers too after all. The waste is often sent as used goods for resale however it is mostly just rubbish. Rubbish that is then “recycled” by the poor; recycled through burning the plastics away to get at the precious metals.
Can we escape this vicious circle of waste?
We can escape this waste and the answer is removing the incentives for planned obsolescence. Taxing carbon for example, forcing companies to deal with the waste they create and setting standards. Taxing carbon will result in companies being forced to pay more for the creation of products. The cost will be passed onto the consumer but the consumer will start paying more attention to how long something lasts. Forcing companies to recycle their waste also makes them less likely to build things to break as it shifts the cost from the planet to the producer. Setting standards are also a very effective way to make quality products. Japan’s law on energy efficiency standards is a model for the world. The best in class become the minimum requirement for all future produced products.
Planned obsolescence is only a good idea on a planet with unlimited resources and even then it is a massive waste producing concept. We cannot afford this policy just to encourage growth, as it results in over proportional damage to both the planet and the consumer.
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