Monday Moaning

Electronic waste: we must design gadgets that don’t poison the planet

We discard huge amounts of electronics every year, creating a toxic wasteland – often in the poorest countries

We love our gadgets, but we need to find safe ways of disposing of them. Photograph: Oliver Stratmann/AFP/Getty Images

Record sales of tablets, laptops and smart phones. Ever smaller computers, and thinner televisions, brighter screens and sharper cameras. What could possibly be wrong with the worldwide explosion in sales of electrical and digital equipment seen this Christmas? Consumers love the sleek designs and the new connectivity they offer, businesses can’t make enough for a vast and hungry global market, and governments see technological innovation and turnover as the quick way out of recession. This is a new age of the machine and electronic equipment is indispensable in home and workplace.

But there is a downside to the revolution that governments and companies have so far ignored. In the drive to generate fast turnover and new sales, companies have deliberately made it impossible to repair their goods and have shortened the lifespan of equipment.

Hardware is designed not to keep up with software, a computer’s life is now under two years and mobile phones are upgraded every few months. Many electronic devices now have parts that cannot be removed or replaced. From being cheaper to buy new devices than to repair them, it has now reached the point where it is impossible to repair them at all.

The result is that much electronic equipment is impossible to recycle. As devices are miniaturised, they become increasingly complex. A single laptop may contain hundreds of different substances, dozens of metals, plastics and components which are expensive to dispose of. As we saw last week from Ghana, vast quantities of this dangerous “e-waste” is being dumped on developing countries where it is left to some of the poorest people to try to extract what they can in dangerous conditions.

The scale of e-waste growth is shocking and has left governments and authorities behind. By 2017 it is expected that there will be more than 10 billion mobile-connected devices alone.

From under 10m tonnes of e-waste generated in 2000, it has now reached nearly 50m tonnes, with every sign that this will increase by 33% in the next five years. Britain will discard over 1.3m tonnes of electronics this year, much of which will be buried in landfill, incinerated or exported.

The old corporate model of “take, make and chuck” is not sustainable. Our obsession with gadgetry and technology is now driving industry to open new mines around the world, squandering energy, biodiversity and water at every stage of extraction. Enormous areas of toxic wasteland are created and left for future generations to deal with.

Designing goods so they can be easily recycled is now critical. Companies must be challenged to rethink the way they make and source their materials to ensure there is no waste from start to finish. Gadgets must be reusable and repairable, and built-in obsolescence discouraged. Companies, too, must become responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products, especially when they become obsolete.

Governments must better monitor waste shipments from ports. E-waste is easy to conceal, and the black market is attracting organised crime. Natural resources have long been used to fuel violent conflict and human rights abuses, but now we must accept that gadgets can be equally dangerous. The sale of millions of computers and mobile phones, even the electronic toys that we will give this Christmas, is being driven by an increasingly flawed business model which is leading to a depleted and polluted planet.



No need to express an opinion here, because it’s bloody obvious!

Any company that sells any electronic gadget must be legally bound to accept that back on the purchase of a new one; and, be responsible for the responsible disposal of that gadget.

It boils down to this: If companies insist on planned obsolescence, then they are to be made responsible for the end disposal.


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alex Jones on December 16, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    I agree with your concerns about the awful waste of electronic consumerism. The current paradigm based on profit is about establishing dependency, for instance making products that require constant upgrades and replacement; also an inbuilt obsolescence rather than durability. In Colchester, England there are a growing number of e-waste firms that will pick up unwanted electronic products to recycle, evidently there is profit in the recycling business.



  2. I’m with you on that last sentence. Manufacturers should take responsibility for their products for the entire life cycle of the product: from manufacture through to disposal.



  3. I have been thinking about this as well. While I don’t have TV I have seen the advertisements for all these new products. Our school this year gave every student (2,400 students) a mini iPad for school and homework. Again another series of products that only add to the waste of the world.

    One thing people should know is that their cell phones even without a service will always be able to call 911 (in US, not sure what the emergency numbers are elsewhere). My son works in the cell phone industry and asks people if they are willing to give him their old phone when they upgrade. The phones are wiped clean, repaired if necessary and then given to shelters for abused women. When they leave the shelters to go to work or find a home they are still at risk of harm from their husband. They are starting over with very little, a cost of a cell phone often more than they can afford so a cell that can call the police when they are in danger is very valuable to them. He also passes me a phone from his customers since I refuse to buy a new one

    We need to look at who might be able to use our devices when we no longer want them.



    • >Lois, I hadn’t thought of the impact of secondhand phones in that way. They certainly do have a purpose. I have never bought a new device, my current cellphone is my second, given to me by my old boss because he couldn’t sell it. I’ve had it five years now and have no intention of getting one of these new fangled monstrosities.




      • Well, my phone is basically new this time but no until it no longer functions this will be my phone. The constant upgrading boggles me, what happened to making a choice and sticking with it?


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