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32 responses to “The Real Cost of Planned Obsolescence”

  1. dexitroboper

    Embedding is embuggered

  2. wilful

    Not looking at the movie , just responding to this: Or are our CRTs ending up being pryed [sic] apart by poorly protected workers in some forgotten corner of Asia too?

    This is a problem how (relative to all the other north/south problems)? I would have thought that labour-intensive recycling would most naturally happen in these places.

  3. Robert Merkel

    Annie Leonard clearly knows SFA about electronics.

  4. Robert Merkel

    Specifically, the whole “why can’t we upgrade/fix” thing is (mostly) not some horrible conspiracy; there are good solid engineering reasons unrelated to “CEO greed” why this occurs.

    And just flinging the word “toxics” around? FFS.

  5. moz

    The Age this week had an article saying that rather a lot of old-style televisions will be discarded with the switch to digital. The stand-out line was that allegedly 73% of TVs are not put into landfill, but that only 5% or so are going through the e-waste program. Most of the rest are apparently in storage – people put them in the garage on the off chance that they need 20kg of toxic waste sometime. Which is fortunate because the e-waste system couldn’t cope if all the e-waste actually went into it. Sorry, no link, Fairfax is pretty shit for search.

    e-recycling from May: http://www.theage.com.au/national/it-might-look-like-just-an-old-tv-but-it-contains-all-the-ingredients-for-an-environmental-time-bomb-20100522-w31j.html
    Mobile phone hoarding: http://www.theage.com.au/digital-life/mobiles/mobile-hoarders-causing-ewaste-glut-20100216-o7g8.html

  6. su

    That is a bit cryptic Robert, can you elucidate for those of us more clueless than Leonard?

  7. su

    Bah, crossed, ignore my comment, Robert.

  8. moz

    Robert, a lot of those reasons are that it’s distressingly cheap to throw stuff out. Remember in the olden days when people would actually get a new CPU or more memory for their PC because it was cheaper? These days it’s only cheaper if the labour is free, so very few people do it. Even “just keep the case” PC upgrades are often not financially effective it any more.
    So the point that a recycling levy on electronics is a good idea is IMO useful. I’d rather a recycling deposit, to encourage people to return stuff instead of dumping it. I’m much happier to see drink containers and plastic bags dumped than old electronics. I know which one I’d rather eat. So a 10% deposit would be great. It would probably make the levy irrelevant after a short time, because who’s going to sell something that the customer is going to return to get the deposit back without facting in the cost of disposal?
    The caveat is that the levy is useful to discourage dodgy operators, and I’d prefer to see the deposit system separated from retail operators – the last thing I want is the local cheap’n’cheerful PC shop taking the levy/returned hardware and dumping it in landfill for a quick buck. But since that’s what we have now it’s not really a step backward (but the opposition would have a field day).

  9. moz

    My experience in Brunswick is that getting stuff into an e-recycling program can be unecessarily difficult. They’re sometimes ludicrously specific – like mobile phone shops that require you to give them the whole phone and won’t accept even a phone battery on its own, let alone any other lithium battery. The council e-waste program is much more open but the staff sometimes have NFI about e-waste, so get tetchy if you’ve chopped the top off something like a washing machine because “washing machines are not e-waste”. On the other hand, they did accept 90% of my pile of e-junk with thanks. The laptop, random AA batteries, misc PC expansion cards and so on all just went in the bins. Yay!

  10. Robert Merkel

    Look, dk, I agree with the idea of reducing e-waste. But pining for the time where Dad sat around with the screwdriver and soldering iron fixing the electric kettle is a nonsense.

    If you want to see greedy capitalists in action, spare parts and maintenance are the place – captive markets and all that.

    Furthermore, the idea of “upgrading” consumer electronics is a nightmare. It’s the engineering equivalent of trying to relieve congestion by widening one road at a time.

    The real reason why electronics gets chucked away so quickly is that manufacturers keep offering substantively better products, in a way not seen in other product lines, that let you actually do more and better things. Compare a smartphone from three years ago with a current one.

    You’ll also note that the trend is not all one way. We may be chucking away smartphones every eighteen months, but we’re not buying Walkmans – or, increasingly, low-end digital cameras – because the smartphone does that job.

  11. Fran Barlow

    Assuming that there isn’t some neat and easy way to recycle, repair or reuse various elements of waste (including e-waste) I quite like the idea of plasma furnaces.

    Much of the resultant material is recoverable and reusable and everything that emerges is rendered non-toxic.

    See also

    Plasma waste converters can treat almost any kind of waste, including some traditionally difficult waste materials. It can treat medical waste or chemically-contaminated waste and leave nothing but gases and slag.
    Plasma Converter Byproducts
    There are three main byproducts that are a result of the plasma gasification process: synthetic gas (syngas), slag and heat.

    Syngas is a mixture of several gases but mainly comprises hydrogen and carbon monoxide. It can be used as a fuel source, and some plants use it to both provide power for the plant and sell excess electricity to the power grid. Garbage contains a great deal of potential energy; the gasification process enables engineers to convert the potential energy into electrical energy.

    If slag is air-cooled, it forms black, glassy rocks that look and feel like obsidian, which can be used in concrete or asphalt. Molten slag can be funneled into brick or paving stone molds and then air cool into ready-to-use construction material. If you were to blow compressed air through a stream of this molten material, you’d end up with rock wool. Rock wool has the appearance of gray cotton candy. It”s light and wispy, and according to Dr. Circeo, it has the potential to revolutionize the plasma waste treatment industry. Rock wool is a very efficient insulation material, twice as effective as fiberglass. It’s also lighter than water, but very absorbent. Because of this, it could potentially be used to help contain and clean oil spills in the ocean. Cleanup crews could spread rock wool over and around an oil spill. The rock wool would float on the water while soaking up the oil, making collection a relatively easy process. Hydroponic growing systems can also use rock wool — farmers can plant seeds in slabs or blocks of it.

    The article here goes on to discuss a plasma gasification plant in Utashinai, Japan. Apparently, “the plant processes approximately 300 tons per day. The plant generates up to 7.9 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity, selling about 4.3 MWh back to the power grid.”

    OK that’s not much power but the point is that in energy terms, we are disposing of waste and producing useable materials at quite a low footprint cost, given that the organic material would decompose and we are avoiding landfill.

    The article continues:

    Plasma gasification is also used for specialized waste handling projects. In Bordeaux, France, plants designed by Europlasma are used to melt asbestos or vitrify fly ash, particulates that are a result of using incinerators to destroy waste. Fly ash can contain hazardous materials and traditionally have been stored in specialized landfills. Using a plasma torch facility, Europlasma can convert the ash into slag, where the heavy metals and other hazardous materials are rendered inert.

    It seems to me that given the high petrochemical content of much of contemporary e-waste, the various nasties in batteries, the glass, the scrap metal and mercury, that facilities such as this could be very useful indeed.

  12. moz

    Fran, the problem with the plasma plants is that they turn extremely costly recycleable materials into low-grade products – generally rocks. We have rather a lot of rock already. What we don’t have lots of spare are the rare earth elements and so on that the electronics contain. Some of the cost is the nasty conditions endured to collect them (and not just in the Congo – even the “good” mines are nasty places).
    There’s quite a bit of “design for recycling” that could be done, and with that sort of process in place the waste that comes out of the “de-phone” plant is a lot less and AFAIK not especially toxic.
    That said, I’m a fan of the high-temperature incinerators for a lot of the organic toxic waste we generate because they’re a shirtload better than what we do now (even the “ship it to Denmark for incineration” option is not as good as doing that here).

  13. lilacsigil

    I bought a new laptop this year and I wanted to dispose of the old one (which was not working, so I couldn’t donate it) safely. After much research and finding many places that were open for collections one day a week, only in the cities, I had to post it, at the cost of $18, to an e-cycling centre in Melbourne, about 250km away. I think most people just aren’t going to bother.

  14. tssk

    Hint for those trying to get rid of still working CRT’s. High quality ones are loved by retro gamers so if you know a games nerd and you have an old Trinitron try offering it to them before throwing it out on the street. I snagged one in the last council cleanup and it almost bought me to tears seeing how many good crt’s were smashed on the pavement by new flatscreen owners wanting to live their rockstar fantasy.

  15. wilful

    At work we have an entire large compactus devoted to 24″ CRTs, each weighing in the order of 60 kg.

    Eventually they wind up at a charity to be given to the deserving, I guess.

  16. Robert Merkel

    She does have some good points there.

    However, I’d go back to wilful’s point – the underlying problem here is that poor and downtrodden people are poor and downtrodden. This is but one of many manifestations of this.

  17. Alex L

    Should that be “Planned Obsolescence”?

  18. quokka

    One thing to understand about electronics is that the dramatic reductions in cost and increase in performance has been driven by miniaturization above all else. It’s what makes stuff go faster because of the lower capacitive/inductive coupling between the bits and pieces and makes it cheaper because less stuff is required to make it. Miniaturization also results in lower power consumption for the same performance.

    Miniaturization, and it’s friend large scale integration, is the enemy of upgrade-ability, either by the user or anybody else. In all probability, efforts to make products upgradeable would cost more, and increase materials use but make them hardly any less subject to obsolescence in a technology that is still rapidly developing.

    Much better to recycle properly.

  19. Robert Merkel

    Quokka – I suspect Ms. Leonard would be astounded if she took a look inside a modern DVD player, just how much of the box is empty space, and just how few components it contains.

  20. FDB

    Robert, I dig what you’re saying wrt computers, phones, things with frickin laser beams etc, but I don’t think it’s that ridiculous to pine for “the time where Dad sat around with the screwdriver and soldering iron fixing the electric kettle”.

    We still have electric kettles, with much the same electronics, but they’re shittily built and often moulded together so as to be extremely resistant to maintenance and repair. I’m pretty handy with me tools, but recently had to buy a new kettle cos the old one was designed not to have a replaceable element. This is basically hundred-year-old tech, which could last that long if serviceable.

    There are lots of things in this category – the technology won’t really ever be superseded and need replacing except when it breaks, but the fucking things are so opaque and flimsy, and so illogically designed, that even a pro relishes fixing older gear in preference.

    I guess this is a bit tangential to the main topic, but as someone who repairs audiovisual gear for a living among other things, I come across the same careless shortcut el-cheapo design principles in gear which could and should be perfectly useful for the foreseeable future (audio amplifiers, mixing consoles, speakers).

    To replace a fader in a mixer for example (standard and unavoidable wear/tear problem) should take about ten minutes tops, and does with almost any gear more than ten years old. In some new units (Yamaha, we hardly knew ye!) it takes up to a full hour, as you have to completely – I mean completely – dismantle the unit to get to the control board. This costs the customer about fifty bucks more than it should have to, on each and every repair job, to save what could only be a few bucks in production costs.

  21. Fran Barlow

    I’ve often thought (without knowing that it would be a viable business) that it would be fabulous if in at least the major population centres there were places that did for white goods what wreckers do for old cars.

    I must have at least half a dozen colleagues and friends who have replaced dishwashers, washing machines and driers in the last couple of years because some relatively minor part was simply no longer available, and which, for all we know, might well be identical or sufficiently similar to some part on some other model or even make of machine.

    It seems intuitively reasonable to me that if there were some white goods savant somewhere he or she could make a fortune on the trade. A lot of people do want new stuff and so someone in some relatively cheap place to rent with good access to the city and a website ought (in conjunction with some repairers to be able to run a pretty good mail-order business.

    Maybe it would be a lot harder than it sounds — which is certainly possible since I don’t know the first thing about the workings of whitegoods — but I can’t help wondering that if it can work for cars, why not appliances?

  22. FDB

    Fran, voila.

    Gotta love MEFL.

  23. dave

    Robert @ 11 while your point about technically better products is valid in the sense that they offer us faster or more efficient ways of doing things ( I could almost do all my average computer use on a smart phone for example) I’m not sure that such efficiencies mandate a better life. Furthermore, and this I take it to be a strong message in the vid, our quality of life is much greater than a function of whatever new technical gadget we might own or use and the by-product of the technical innovations that allow me to use a smart phone instead of something older bigger and slower is that all that old stuff still has to go somewhere.

    Actually it’s even more insidious. All the technical whiz bang stuff that clutters up the shelves of Harvey Norman is the result of product development. All those people who bought the first generation iPods for example paid enough to allow Apple to develop the product, notably Apple now recycles their stuff (where and how?) but all the waste from the past is actually the externalised cost referred to in the vid.

    Narrowing the focus down to consumer electronics does not change the larger economic,social and ecological issues even if it does upset those who like their new gadgets.

  24. Fran Barlow

    FDB pointed to a useful link …

    Thanks. It is most heartening that someone is working to upgrade inefficient refrigerators: more power to them I say. (Or should that be less?) 😉

    Nevertheless, as worthy as it surely is, it’s still a long way short of the kind of thing I had in mind.

  25. Salient Green

    I could write a book about the all Chinese shit I have bought which needed repairs or throwing away because some minor part was ‘poorly designed or manufactured’. The Chinese aren’t that stupid and some products are designed not just to fail but to irritate. I have a toolmaking trade and have been able to fix many things which the non technical person would just throw away in disgust.

    It’s not just electronics that have planned obsolescence and I would argue that tools and furniture can have far greater wastage of resources for the sake of some minor part breaking or wearing out.

    A pet hate of mine is printers and cartridges. Printers are sold at below cost because they can make money on the cartridges. Clever people can learn to refill them and reset the chips but the manufacturers reduce the ink capacity. There is no technical reason why a large, refillable reservoir cannot be in the machine with ink fed via flexible tubes to the printing head.

  26. FDB

    Yeah Fran – it’s a joint venture between a charity and a small department of a local council, running out of a small shed next to an op-shop in East Brunswick. But the lessons from the research they did setting it up (my ex worked for them for a while) would be very useful in setting up a larger operation. As per your suggestion, they do a lot of substitution and use of non-standard or self-manufactured parts. They often end up with a more efficient fridge than the original model straight out of the factory.

    As you say, no reason not to do the same with other mechanically/electronically simple products with lots of embedded energy.

  27. Huggybunny

    I work in product development in the electronics industry.
    In my field the driver is reduced materials cost, both at the actual product level and at the applications level.
    My team has managed to reduce the mass of our stuff by a factor of 10 compared with competing products.
    These things then go out there and replace stuff that is 10 times their weight so we get a huge reduction in raw materials for a given service.
    I would suggest that this law applies for just about every-thing. A good example is the iPhone that replaces your calculator, your phone, your timer , your voice recorder, your camera, specialist electronics calculator and gawd knows what else with one thing. That’s why every-one in my office has one.
    Energy efficiency, materials use efficiency, and massless software are now the drivers for all that stuff.

  28. sublime cowgirl

    A labour of love i believe….

    Castlemaine Retrofit Electronics – Fight throwaway culture!
    Welcome to Retrofit.
    Most homes have at least a few small electronic items (mostly mobile phones) that are broken or obsolete, and often not cost effective to repair. I don’t want to see these items destroyed in landfill or “recycling” programs. Donate them here, and I can restore them to a working new or near new quality, and sell them back to the community at a fair price. Find out more about purchasing, donating and myself in the “Links” menu to the right, browse items for sale in the “Categories” menu, and don’t forget to hit the Facebook “like” button to get the word out about this great idea!

  29. JM


    I’m not sure you’ve got much of an understanding of this stuff either.

    1. Moore’s Law (and the video is guilty of this too) is not a law. It’s a financial business strategy.

    Back in the 1960’s electronics companies were having a lot of trouble getting the parameters of their design cycle right. For example, one company might choose to have a long cycle (say 3 years) for a killer new product requiring large up front investment only to get it to market only months in advance of a competitor coming out with something not quite as good, but cheaper. Therefore they didn’t have enough time to recover their investment.

    On the other hand, another company might choose to go with a much shorter cycle (say 9 months – I’m choosing these periods for a reason), and bring out a series of incremental developments only to find themselves leap-frogged by a company committed to a longer cycle, but developing more advanced stuff.

    Companies could (and often did) go broke over this.

    Lot’s of people were concerned about this, so Moore analyzed what the optimum product cycle was – one that gave the best balance between investment recovery and low technical risk.

    He calculated the optimum cycle at 18 months. That’s where the ‘law’ comes from.

    After a few years most companies were operating on 18 month cycles. Two that didn’t were Zilog (an Intel-killer in the 1970’s) and IBM up until the late 1980’s with the MCI bus.* Zilog spent about 5 years developing a chip that was obsolete before it was released, and it killed them (their technology is still around but they went through significant restructuring). IBM nearly went bankrupt and only escaped by getting into services.

    But the takeaway is that there is nothing innate in Moore’s Law – it’s just a financial strategy and an almost entirely arbitrary result of a given economic and market structure.

    2. Her point about lead in old CRT’s is actually true. It’s in the solder used. However, this situation has changed in the last few years as industry has adopted lead free solder – at the behest of governments.

    3. There is nothing wrong with modular repair. Yes it’s impossible nowadays for Dad to fix something with a soldering iron (at least for most Dads), but manufacturers actually use modularity to fix goods. For example, Apple (who are not the greenest company in the world) build their equipment in highly modular form – why wouldn’t they, it makes the cost of production lower – but unlike many of their competitors actually regard repair services as a profit center (the “Genius Bar”).

    Try getting Dell or Sony to fix anything after the warranty period, it’s next to impossible.

    There is nothing wrong with the program she’s outlining – in fact it is actually already happening. What she seems to be doing is describing the “old” (circa 2000) situation perhaps in the hope of accelerating the process.

    * In fact, in the case of the MCI bus they actually crippled the first release by making it run 1/2 as fast as it actually could. The reason for doing this is that they could come back and do a “golden screwdriver” on their production lines and appear to double the speed after 18 months. Unfortunately, hobbyists noticed, they got caught and the MCI bus failed.

  30. steveh

    It is possible to repair many electronic circuits provided the knowledge and time are available.
    The thing that is the hardest to deal with on many modern systems is the use of SMD components. Difficult to solder (without a +$500 iron) and time-consuming to diagnose means higher cost of repair unless we talk about board-level replacement.
    The benefit however (and a large one in my estimation) is the reduction in shear volume (materials waste) and power requirement (heat generated).
    Even if we look at something as esoteric as RF components the efficiency of modern products (such as those HuggyBunny relates above) adds value (both monetary and environmental) to newer versions of PCB.
    If we’re looking to criticise on the “throw-away” factor then we need to start digging deeper into psychology and evolutionary traits…not so much the physical circuit design.