Disposing with Disposability

The electronics industry has become pretty trashy business.
The Environmental Protection Agency cites estimates that 130
million cell phones are thrown out in the United States each year
and 250 million computers will be out-of-date in less than five
years. These figures aren’t surprising when you consider the races
between companies to release faster computers, flatter televisions,
and fancier cell phones as quickly as consumers can whip out their
credit cards. Chalk it all up to ‘planned obsolescence,’ the
strategy of deliberately building a product?that quickly loses
its?usefulness so that consumers will line up for the newer, better
model. In a new book,
Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in
America
(Harvard University 2006), Giles Slade traces the
history of planned obsolescence in the United States from the
throwaway paper shirt collars of the 1800s to today’s pricey iPods
and BlackBerrys, those constantly evolving high-tech gadgets that
are under warranty for only a year.
Utne.com‘s Rachel
Anderson spoke with Slade from his home in Richmond, British
Columbia, about the future of planned obsolescence.

How did you become interested in
disposability?

I was really interested in how rude people are in North America,
and I started thinking that that was part of being short on time. I
had been teaching American Studies in the United Arab Emirates and
when I came back to Canada in January of 2002, I experienced real
culture shock. Your day in an Arab country is filled with little
interactions with people — you argue over five cents or a dollar
and you take your time doing it. When I got back, downtown
Vancouver felt like — excuse the expression –‘Fuck you. Next!’ I
started wondering when we lost our sense of social interaction and
duration in personal relations. It seemed to happen at the
beginning of the 21st century, right around the time that
disposable products became really prominent. I started doing a lot
of reading and realized our attitudes towards material goods
condition our attitudes towards each other. Then I ran across a
French theorist [Gilles Lipovetsky] who said that in the early 20th
century we made a transition from a very traditional culture to a
fashion culture, where everything durable and traditional is
discarded and where we become used to quick changes, quick
interactions, and superficial relationships between people. I
started digging and Made to Break is what I came up
with.

You talk in your book about how disposability made
thriftiness — such as saving rags in the early part of last
century — taboo. Are there modern examples of this?

I’ve written against the disposability of iPods and I thought
people would say, ‘Yeah, we’re being cheated!’ But a lot of
bloggers and people on the internet write about how wonderful the
disposability of the iPod is because you can get the next best
thing really quickly. They seem to be missing the point. I mean,
you pay $350 for a device, load all your songs onto it — songs
that cost you a dollar a piece — surely, you want it to last
longer than a year. Older people seem to agree with me, and younger
people seem not to.

It seems like pretty much everything has a shorter shelf
life today. You make note of Henry Ford and how he had a commitment
to building durable products. Are there companies out there right
now upholding this principle?

There are particular luxury products promoted as highly durable
and therefore worth more money, like Mercedes-Benz and De Beers
diamonds, but for the most part, it’s hard to imagine a product
that doesn’t require repetitive consumption because the
manufacturers are always shooting for more than one sale. They
don’t want you to buy one thing and never buy another. I guess
Henry could allow people to do that because his market was
constantly expanding. But as soon as he got a competitor, and as
soon as his market stopped expanding, it didn’t work anymore. We’re
at this moment where we’re really challenged to find a new model
for a market, and there aren’t many businesses that do that right
now. I guess Boeing aircraft, the manufacturer of jet turbines, and
Caterpillar, the firm that manufactures heavy machinery — they
tend to recycle components and rebuild. They have a really good
economic model that works for them.

Is it because of competition or lack thereof that
they’re able to do that? Or is there another
motivation?

It might be that it’s just the raw expense of their products.
But, for sure, competition drives planned obsolescence. Competition
drives the invention and development of new options that appeal to
people and make them want to trade up. But it’s gotten to a
ridiculous extreme. I think in Japan most people replace their cell
phones after eight months. It’s stupid.

I’m trying to get mine to last longer than the 27 months
the company said it would.

That’s actually pretty long. There are some manufacturers like
Ericsson that are building towards this trend. It takes a minute to
take a cell phone apart in order to recycle it, and hundreds of
millions of cell phones is a lot of minutes. Ericsson has a cell
phone that’s designed and in the beginning of the manufacturing
pipeline. With an electronic impulse the phone falls apart at the
end of its lifetime. It can then be machine sorted into recycling
bins. That’s good, but the trouble is that people aren’t trained to
recycle them; they just toss them into the garbage.

What do you consider a bigger problem today: technology
devices that are quickly becoming obsolete or disposable items like
paper products?

Well, they are both dirty industries. Paper’s a completely dirty
industry (speaking as a Canadian); it’s a massive pollutant. The
trouble with technology is that people are blind to it. They think
it’s this clean, wonderful, shiny sort of impeccable industry, but
it’s not. It is, in fact, very dirty, both at the production end
and at the waste and disposal end. Technology is maybe more
[problematic] than paper because of the worldwide volumes of
information technology products. We’re going to pump a massive
amount of toxins into the environment over the next decade and most
people just aren’t aware of that. The lack of awareness is really
dangerous.

Do you think people want items that will
last?

I think so, though people have been conditioned to want items
that don’t last. We can condition people to spend money on
something that lasts longer. It seems pretty reasonable to me that
you don’t want to get rid of all your disposable cash and
disposable income by replacing things over and over and over
again.

Your book puts planned obsolescence mostly on the
shoulders of the manufacturers. What do you think people can
do?

Well, first of all, read my book. (Chuckles.) I guess
what I’m trying to do is make people more aware of their casual
purchases. Every Christmas-Kwanzaa-Hanukkah season, these new toys
come out and people consume them more and more, and junk their old
ones. I think we’re past the point where we can do that — each act
of consumption has a sinister downside to it. You really have to
make yourself aware of what you’re doing with these things. Do you
really need that new phone because it’s so extra-slim and cool? Or
will your old phone keep you going? Do I need a flat screen for my
old PC? Not really. I don’t have to junk the old one — not yet. I
can make it last, keep it out of the waste stream. And I can save
some money doing it.

The Federal Communications Commission has bumped back
the mandated switch from analog to digital televisions until 2009.
Are they planning to do anything regarding the disposal or
recycling of all these analog TVs?

Not that I’ve heard. I’d love for them to have some sort of
plan. They’ve mandated a group called NEPSI [National Electronic
Product Stewardship Initiative] to come up with environmental
legislation that would cover the take-back and recycling of analog
televisions and other e-waste. But NEPSI was an organization that
included the stakeholders — the electronic manufacturers — and
they stymied the whole process so that eventually they came out
with this non-agreement. No legislation came out of it.

No federal legislation has been enacted yet, and there’s no
political will to. But some states have enacted take-back laws. I
think there’s four that have and 19 more that are looking at it.
One of the most strict is Maine, where the manufacturers are
actually forced to pay for collecting the stuff and disposing it.
Still, it’s to the manufacturers’ advantage to have chaos in the
take-back process — some states will have laws, some states won’t.
I don’t mean to sound cynical, but unless you put some sort of cap
on [the manufacturers], force them to, first of all, not use the
toxins that go into these machines and, secondly, to pay to take
them back, they’ll continue to use the most poisonous materials and
make as many of them as they can sell.

Do you see any successful trends that are moving away
from planned obsolescence?

In Europe, the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment)
initiative has been enacted, banning toxic substances in the
manufacturing of electronics. Also, electronic manufacturers have
been charged with paying to take back and recycle these devices.
Manufacturers like Ericsson are beginning to design things that
aren’t nearly as poisonous and can be recycled easily and cheaply.
I think you’re not going to find a manufacturer that will willingly
limit planned obsolescence. If they’re forced to, they’ll extend
the life of their products.

In May [Apple CEO] Steve Jobs said you should replace an iPod
every year. Who’s that good for except Steve Jobs? Unless there’s
some legislation that says, ‘If you dump 68 million iPods into the
American landfills, you have to pay to collect them,’ then I’m sure
Steve will do a cost-benefit analysis and say, ‘OK, it will cost us
less to build them for two years than to recycle them all.’ Then
you’ll get longer life products. I’m really interested to see what
happens with Microsoft Zune [the company’s planned iPod
competitor], whenever it comes out. It will be very smart of them
to build something that lasts substantially longer and to position
it against the iPod.

I noticed that Dell — before they had their battery crisis —
became the only electronic manufacturer to freely pay for the
shipping of their old computers back to the manufacturer to be
recycled. Hewlett-Packard makes their customers pay and I don’t
know what Apple does — they’ve got a recycling program, but it’s
not very popular. If companies started competing against each other
to be more eco-friendly, that would be a wonderful thing.

Are you optimistic about the future? Do you think we’ll
get our act together?

I think we’re in for a really hard patch. We tend to manage
things on a crisis basis, so I imagine there has to be one before
there will be the public will to at least slow down the kind of
excessive waste we have. You mentioned that in 2009 all the analog
TVs will go belly up. With 5-10 pounds of lead per TV, and an
estimated 300 million TVs — I think the number is substantially
larger, but even if it’s only 300 million TVs — that’s a lot of
lead. As they’re sitting in dumps, lead is coming out of them, and
so are flame retardants and other [toxins].

We’ve confronted ourselves with this really overwhelming problem
and I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. When
municipalities and states start realizing how much it’s costing
them to process the junk that’s put into the market and what it’s
doing to the infrastructure in their state — how they can’t afford
other [public services], how it’s going to impact the health of
their workers, how it’s going to impact the water quality for their
industries — they’ll see all the additional costs. I think at that
point people are going to start screaming and making the
manufacturers pay.

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