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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17 Responses to “Is the Earth Doomed Due to Planned Obsolescence?”

  1. [...] into it and a conveyor belt flowing out. This is basically what’s happening every day, we consume and we create. Light bulbs flow in, burnt light bulbs flow out. Electricity is flowing in, heat is [...]

  2. [...] Les différents types d'obsolescence Source image [...]

  3. FRancesco says:

    A theory of “Planned Obsolescence” applied to the iPad: http://bit.ly/1bquBLO

  4. [...] Kjøpefritt år Posted by inspirerende under Bærekraftig utvikling | Stikkord: Bruk og kast mentalitet, bruk og kast samfunn, Kjøpefritt år, Perceivd obsolescence, Planned obsolescence, spire | Legg igjen en kommentar  Blide lånt fra Quiet Environmentalist [...]

  5. [...] Planned Obsolescence by jelenaj26 (Image of Apple-Planned-Obsolescence) Retrieved from http://quiet-environmentalist.com/is-the-earth-doomed-due-to-planned-obsolescence/ [...]

  6. jm says:

    Planned obsolescence is not what it seems – rather let’s just say it’s how things roll. Consumer electronics are not generally made to fail early on purpose, but the choice of poor quality components is usually to blame. A common one is electrolytic capacitors. Capacitors can be poor quality ones or even placed near heat sources so they will dry out and fail in less than 5 years. Manufacturers do this not on purpose, but do it because of what the market demands. That demand is low price – on top of American consumers typically pay more for their stuff because we have more disposable income. Yet we often look for the lowest price on an item. Look on many web forums, what do most do when their router dies? They go along with it – time to buy a new one! But hey, it’s a chance to upgrade to the latest wifi. So why do manufacturers choose poor quality components? Because there’s no incentive for that long life router. People are shopping for how many features they can get for the lowest price, not what components it has in the case; ie the “how” it does this or that. It would seem like a cartel or something, but in reality it’s just how things roll. If consumers change their buying habbits then great there’s the incentive, and probably higher prices.

    Speaking of which to give an example; back in just early 2000 routers were expensive. An original Linksys first version befsr41 in the network that according to my records I payed about $90 for in 2001. And that’s just wired. Later, I wanted to add wireless. It’s $300 for the wireless version of the router, or $90 for an access point alone. So I got the access point. Today at an open wifi guest network I run, these two machines are still in service 12 years later with years of uptime only rebooted during power glitches and to move them. And I’ve never cracked the case to do any sort of repairs like the capacitors. Most people would have replaced them years ago for the latest wifi version or to support that crazy fast internet. Back then “planned obsolescence” was because faster wifi and internet was coming along so people were replacing the stuff anyway. So there was the incentive to lower quality and price. Before 2000, routers were thousands of dollars and only professionals purchased them.

    Now, looking at board pics of this old stuff online, I can see why it lasted so long. There’s fewer electrolytics, and what’s there isn’t cheap. The boards are layed out with many more off the shelf chips – like main cpu, ram, and ethernet controllers. Today’s stuff is a “router on a chip” kind of thing with few external chips. Not that low chip counts are bad, it’s one thing manufacturers do to get costs down. I looked at my access point I have, and it is stupidly big by today’s standards, but it can be thought of telco or commercial grade designed to last and expensive. It’s kind of interesting actually, all separate ram chips and controllers and such – like a desktop motherboard. I’ve spied on electrolytic capacitor at the power input. The rest are high reliability tantalum and ceramic.

  7. jm says:

    Lightbulbs were terribly inefficient prior to about 1910, because they were replacing candles and oil lanterns. For the purpose, they served it well. Light bulbs back then were also expensive. Light bulbs only got shorter-lived simply because of demand of the changing times. The filament needed to burn hotter for greater efficiency, which means shorter life. It’s a trade off. You can buy 20,000 hour light bulbs even today, they’re fine if you like the low yellowy light. And if you would have to install more bulbs to get the same amount of light, but you’ll be paying for it on your electric bill. The idea of a cartel is a myth perpetuated on the internet by misunderstanding minds taking a grain of truth and blowing it wide open. Isn’t the internet famous for that?

    Today, regular 1000 hour bulbs are so cheap, not much money is made on them. Patents expired and the price drops through the economy of sale. The bulb companies did back the light bulb bans so they could get their led bulbs off the ground. There are higher profit margins on the new patended product. Just don’t think that’s a cartel, it’s just corporations making decisions. After all, they’re in the business of making money.

  8. JTD says:

    It’s the very heart of BS Capitalism! You don’t get what you pay for anymore and everything is paid to fall apart!

    I became a Neo-Luddite a few years ago when I had my last straw with this crap… Basically I went to Sears and bought their top of the line and most expensive snow blower after much due consideration of whether or not I needed this thing. Cost me around $1,000 new, extended service plan and all that included. It was an absolute piece of shit! What used to be made of metal is now made of plastic (the a-hole service guy said this was so it wouldn’t rust, yeah right!), and what used to be made of plastic is now made of cardboard or something similar. In 6 months the tires began to deflate regularly. In 2 seasons the machine refused to start. I didn’t keep this machine outside exposed to the weather but in my dry and relatively warm cellar. Supposedly it’s got something to do with fuel contamination or some such nonsense–I feed it the same gas I feed my lawn mower (also Sears but also around 40 years old and still running!). This thing’s a piece of junk and it reached the point where I quite spending hours trying to start it but rather grabbed an old snow shovel and did the work myself the hard old fashioned way and nearly had a heart attack but I got it done!

    Since then I began to re-evaluate everything and all the new tech out there that’s built to fall apart. Either you can repair it at a high cost which isn’t worth it or, ideally as they want you to, buy a brand new one!

    If you take these examples and apply them throughout evil Capitalism, this place is going to start falling apart at the seams. I mean, tires, small parts, everything added together adds up to Very dangerous and destructive life styles… It’s amazing that cars last as long as they do now! To say nothing about trains and planes. This never ending cycle of trying to Cut Corners to save a cent her and there applied to Everything in our society Will destroy us sooner or later! It’s all about these greedy bastards!

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  11. Jim Tree says:

    The way products are made today without concern for the potential effect on
    the environment seems to me to be most ludicrous. I recently read articles
    depicting the effect caused by the disposal of electronic appliances which is
    so devastating to the areas where they are being disposed. This planet is finite consequently its capacity maintaining homeostasis is finite. The
    documentary “Blue Mission” is evidence of this. It seems to me the way
    industry is burning the candle at both ends must be because the intelligencia
    has reconciled that it’s to late for anybody to do anything about the dire
    straights of the planet so what the hell. One might look at the pollution
    being addend to the environment being similar to a titration experiment in
    a laboratory.

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