Tech Trash Talk

The release of Appleís new iPhone immediately made me groan: More encouragement to continue to throw out old cell phones and ‘obsolete’ high-tech toys. Consumers will buy over a billion cell phones this year, and the rate is growing by 10-20% per year. The average life of a cell phone is a year. Virtually none of them are recycled. They all end up in landfills, largely in struggling nations. A billion a year. Deliberately shoddily manufactured garbage, laced with cadmium, beryllium, lead and other toxic materials. Disgraceful.

Last summer I charted the pathetic cradle-to-grave agribusiness food production system and all the atrocities and waste it produces. This is what the process looks like for high-tech products (and in fact for most manufactured goods):

  1. Intellectual property is secured by absurdly over-broad IP laws, stunting innovation and competitiveness.
  2. Toxic materials for the product are mined from struggling nations with slave and child labour, producing toxic pollution, waste and illness. 
  3. Plastics for the product are manufactured in plants that use huge amounts of oil and spew out carcinogens and other toxins into the air and water, to produce shoddy, fragile shells and extravagant packaging that gets immediately thrown out.
  4. The materials are transported huge distances to manufacturing and assembly sites, mostly in struggling nations with no enforceable social or environmental laws.
  5. Manufacture and assembly occur in sweat shops with slave and child labour, producing yet more toxic pollution, waste and illness.
  6. The disposable finished product in the disposable packaging is then transported huge distances to markets.
  7. The product is then marketed as a disposable fashion item, with inadequate warranties, poor service, and no recycling or reuse capability.
  8. The product breaks as soon as it gets dropped, wet, overheated or used more than lightly and occasionally, due to its shoddy construction and planned obsolescence.
  9. The product is dumped into un-recyclable garbage. 
  10. It ends up in either local or struggling nation landfills; in the latter case, it is ëminedí by beggars for parts, causing yet more illness and injury.
  11. The customer jumps in his SUV and drives miles to the box store to buy a replacement piece of junk.

There are three recent books out lamenting this sorry state: Heather Rogersí Gone Tomorrow, Giles Sladeís Made to Break and Elizabeth Grossmanís High Tech Trash. Their lesson is the same: Technology never creates less waste.

Piled on top of the billion cell phones are the equally shoddy and toxic computers, MP3 players and other toys, as well as more traditional personal care, media and entertainment devices. Analogue TVs and CRT monitors, with their especially toxic components, are added to the pile, often replaced by energy-gulping plasma units. And some municipalities like New York and Washington DC, after being bribed or coerced by the tight ‘waste disposal’ oligopoly, actually stopped their recycling programs before consumer outrage forced them to be reinstated.

Consumer protection legislation and education are too late in the process to change this. The answer is quite simple, but it would take more balls than we’ll ever see from a politician:

  1. Prohibit the manufacture or importing in the first place of goods that are not entirely reusable and taken back by the vendor for reuse. Zero waste. This is completely feasible, though it would be expensive and, by enabling consumers to buy much less often, would precipitate a recession. Don’t believe me? ñ Read any of the three books mentioned above. With modern technology there is no reason for us to be producing any garbage, anywhere, ever.
  2. Tax bads, not goods ñ place steep taxes on products that are imported, polluting, energy-consuming, or have a short warrantied life, so theyíre more expensive than locally produced, cleanly-made, low-energy, long-life, 100% reusable alternatives.
  3. Mandate consumer-friendly minimum warranty and service standards, monitored by consumer organizations, and have steep fines for offenders.

There are a lot of problems in our world that are complex and intractable, but this isn’t one of them. All itwould take is political will. Don’t hold your breath.

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10 Responses to Tech Trash Talk

  1. I think your posting is bit blown out of porportion. My last cell phone I had for two years before I bought a new one. On average my phone last two years unless I drop it a few hundred times. It takes quite a bit to damage these phones. I think computers are a bigger waste of materials than cell phones, yet we keep upgrading those. The real problem is most of us are not about to stop buying cell phones and computers. Most of us are not about run over to these other countries and try and stop these mega corporations from doing what they are doing. We need to change the goverments we live in to stop the companies from doing business in the cut throat destructive way they have been doing. We need to dismantle global corporations.By the way I would really like to hear your thoughts on the whole Copyright laws that seem to be coming to Canada soon.

  2. I agree with most of what you say, it’s a sorry state, and unlikely to change soon. However, there’s a little irony, while talking of such matters, in calling us all “consumers”. :-)That’s what we may be right now, but if you wish things to be different, wouldn’t it be better to start talking about “customers” instead?

  3. There can be no doubt about the facts surrounding the impact to the environment of high technology devices. This is a big, complex problem that I don’t think the private sector (motivated by profits to frequently ignore common sense or good citizenship) or government (motivated to “compromise” by the need to get/stay in power).Dave, I think you’ve very succintly captured the problem, and some viable likely solutions. This is a big “hairy” problem that I think will take more than business and government working at cross-purposes to solve. Some sort of “third entity” is needed, one that thinks strategically and wholistically, one that truly has the best interests of global citizens at heart, and can bring together interests of business and government to achieve meaningful change. Not an easy task given the divergent mindsets that exist in differnt parts of the globe, war and conflict, difficult to bridge cultures and cultural norms, emerging economies, geopolitical agendas, the need to try and maintain financial stability or risk dire economic and social consequences.We need a different way of approaching the problem, with a different context. Someone smart once said you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.I seem to recall Drucker mentioning something about a “social sector” in his past writings, but I don’t remember much more than that. He must have been thinking about something different – I’m sure he can’t be talking about the fragmented environmental and social groups, who, like business and government, compete with each other for attention and funding rather than work together on behalf of citizens.

  4. Ken Hirsch says:

    Municipalities stop recycling programs when they don’t make economic sense (which is often), not because they were coerced or bribed. Many recycling programs don’t make environmental sense either. Alumin[i]um recycling is a huge win, but glass recycling is not.The stuff that ends up in a landfill is almost never an environmental problem except for certain hazardous waste. The quantities of toxic materials in electronics is generally so small that’s it’s not really a problem. Batteries and CRTs are an exception (although the lead in CRTs is not likely to leach out in significant quantities). The alleged harm that has come from toxic substances in electronics has come from attempts to recycle the materials, not from disposing of it in landfills.Landfills are not much of an economic problem either as there’s now a glut of landfill space: If you seriously think that cell phones are a waste disposal issue, I dare you to go to a landfill and try to find a cell phone. Let us know how many days (weeks?) it takes you. All electronics are only 1.1% of solid waste generated and an even smaller percentage of what ends up in landfills.I agree that taxing bads is a good idea, but I don’t agree with your specifics. Taxing pollution, energy use, having congesting charges for traffic, having more direct (linear) charges for waste disposal are all good ideas. But not, per se, taxing imports or short warranty life.I doubt “zero waste” is practical at all, but I’m sure it’s not desirable.

  5. Jon Husband says:

    I seem to recall Drucker mentioning something about a “social sector” in his past writings, but I don’t remember much more than that. He must have been thinking about something different – I’m sure he can’t be talking about the fragmented environmental and social groups, who, like business and government, compete with each other for attention and funding rather than work together on behalf of citizens.Dale, that was likely in an article by Drucker titled “The Age of Social Transformation” (I keep it in my living room on a coffee table and I read it about once every three months or so). Yes, he was talking about the fragmented environmental and social (and other non-governmental) groups, and churches absent their over religious agendas … and he noted / suggested that it was likely that they would be forced, by the abdication of responsibility-taking by governments and the corporate world, to find ways to solder together some or much of the fragmentation.

  6. Pearl says:

    Wow, lots of comments this time, and informative too.For myself I’ve had two cell phones over a space of 7 years.

  7. Mike says:

    I’m due for a replacement and am close to coming in my pants over the iPhone. It’t the closest thing to a pocket singularity device I’ve seen.In the saving-the-world solution space, technology has one advantage over ideas of mass enlightenment or whatever global consciousness change is needed: it actually works. And you can invent with it yourself. Thus not needing converts, just users.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    I agree with Pearl — this provoked more comment than I expected. Nicola is right, that we should refuse to be ‘consumers’ and instead be ‘customers’, at least until Peer Production eliminates the distinction between customers and producers. As for the critics, I’m unrepentent — a billion pieces of electronic junk of just one kind, in the landfill, every year, has got to stop.

  9. cindy says:

    Perhaps if we look at the cell-phone as a tool, instead of toy, then we might not that easily persuaded to buy YET another one with more features. I am still using mine from 2001. The ONLY reason why I had to change my phone is because I was moving to a different country that uses different technology. I rarely use my phone because I maintain there are not many things can be that important that I MUST be contacted anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I bought it more for urgent/emergency purposes. Consider it funny because I used to work for the wireless division of Motorola and Lucent.The same with computer. Toy or Tool?

  10. Derek says:

    I think all the electronic devices I’ve bought take up less volume and weigh less than the 300 pound television and console phonograph/radio we had when I was a kid. And they used some truly wonderful chemicals for insulation, electrolytes, and other non-conducting components.Also, beryllium is not a toxic material. I wouldn’t want to breath the dust from grinding it, but then I wouldn’t want to breath in the thorium oxide dust from the welding tools I use, or the zinc fumes from spot welding. All of these things are poisonous in the wrong form, but not toxic in everyday use.

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