Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied

Nothing is made to last and other reasons why we are replacing our cellphones and other items so often

By Vivian Warby Time of article published Jul 9, 2021

Share this article:

*This article first appeared in The Waste Issue of Simply Green

Remember buying, say, a washing machine in the 1980s? It was likely to be around for at least 20 years. But this is less true now, with society becoming increasingly accustomed to having – and often wanting – to replace big-ticket items regularly.

This is particularly true of laptops, computers and cellphones. Sadly, the proliferation of digital devices is an environmental disaster. Every year almost 50 million tons of technological scrap is generated and less than 20% of it is recycled.

Not only do tech items not last more than two to three years these days, but consumers have become complicit in this, expecting regular upgrades or replacement of devices, says Professor Dr Bruce Watson, head of Stellenbosch University’s Department of Information Science and research professor at the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research and the School for Data-Science and Computational Thinking.

Read the latest Simply Green digital magazine below

According to MarketWatch, in 2018, consumers replaced cellphones every 15 months. The “made to break” mindset is certainly not good for the environment, with a UN report estimating annual electronic scrap was projected to reach a massive 120 million tons by 2050.

“It is, in a way, a self-inflicted injury. Consumers are offered something twice as good every two years and they have now become addicted to looking for and buying the next-best version,” says Watson. Add to that the ever-changing software and you have created the “worthlessness” of fully functioning devices.

“Because of this you can’t even give your old cellphone away as its battery has either died and cannot be restored or it is incapable of uploading the latest apps. These are the subtle ways the consumer is being pulled along the stream of obsolescence,” says Watson.

This trend does not only apply to laptops and phones – manufacturers of washing machines, driers and fridges have also taken advantage of the consumer mindset that expects items replaced every few years. We are in a trap, says Watson.

Picture: John Cameron/Unsplash

“Globally, companies don’t necessarily want something to last forever and this leads to designing (by accident) for it to break down at a point. “It is not exactly that they are being made to break but certainly non-robust design techniques and parts – and at a lower immediate cost to the consumer – are being used, which leads to things falling apart after two or three years, with the upside for the company being that the consumer has to replace the item.

“And, funnily enough, the consumer is not annoyed by this. Psychologically, it feels roughly right to replace something after this cycle because the consumer has lost a feel for the long-term robustness and endurance of things.

“After three years, consumers have a gut feel that it is okay to replace the item – although, of course, it is not okay.” Most people have only to look in their own drawers to find an old cellphone which they can’t even give away. Cellphones and laptops that cannot be repaired are one of the disasters of our “made to break”, throwaway world, says Watson.

Planned obsolescence – the idea that big international manufacturers are selling us products designed to last only a few years – upsets many. But companies deny this is happening.

And, as we dump apparently obsolete devices and machines, we are creating a colossal mound of e-waste. But while it is important to change the consumer mindset, says Watson, it is ultimately the manufacturers who should not be making items to break. When items are not made to last a lifetime, it does mean price wise they are more accessible.

Also, phones with thin, glued-in, unreplaceable batteries are smaller and easier for the consumer to carry around. Watson says not many people are trained to repair e-waste. It needs highly qualified technicians who have often been trained by the manufacturer.

Frequently, consumers simply don’t have the option to repair. The worldwide Right to Repair movement says even if you are able and willing to repair your electronic device, you might be stymied because your product’s software is subject to copyright.

The copyright often forbids consumers to tinker with or reverse-engineer the device or use an unauthorised repairer. But not all is lost: “I believe there is some hope – but it will call for a consumer mindset change, and for them to be mildly re-educated to be willing to have an older device.”

Watson adds: “If we could persuade software companies to give more life to older devices this would also enable relatively rich people to give away still usable older devices.

“Software and hardware companies work hand in glove to make it difficult to get a new version of an app and new software often needs a new phone, meaning we are often forced to upgrade. If software companies came to the party this would enable a whole secondary market where devices can be given away and have a second life.”

Watson believes with buy-in from smart governments and consumers we will be able to make greener and smarter choices. Meanwhile, how can you do your part? Before you buy a new product, ask yourself if you really need it.

Did you know:

E-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams on the planet. Everything from smartphones to fridges – in fact, anything that runs on electricity that you’ve decided to dump – is electronic waste. Electronic devices are made of a complex mix of materials which include gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, lithium and cobalt.

They are also full of toxic heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium, polluting PVC plastic, and hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants, which can harm human health and the environment. When electronics are mishandled during disposal, these chemicals end up in our soil, water and air.

These toxic elements pollute rivers, lakes and seas and release gases into the atmosphere which disturb ecosystems. When dumped incorrectly into landfills that have not been properly sealed, the items crack and contaminated rainwater then seeps into groundwater.

Remember this case?

One of the most famous instances of planned obsolescence came from one of the biggest companies in the world, Apple. Under French law, it is a crime to intentionally shorten the lifespan of a product. As a result, Apple had to pay a $27million fine. Apple admitted that older iPhone models were slowed down through software updates, though they claimed that this was because of diminishing battery performance rather than the software. Many iPhone users shared details of their phones being too slow to use. Apple slashed the prices of its replacement batteries so the phones would speed up with the new software and pledged to do more in the future to ensure that the phones did not slow again.

How we get drawn in

The most common way for a product to become obsolete is for it to be replaced by something new. Companies use various strategies to make a product seem undesirable, useless and unwanted.

Here are some ways:

* contrived durability

* software updates

* perceived obsolescence and

* prevention of repair

Handle with care

Tips for recycling e-waste

* Due to the hazardous materials contained in e-waste, the dismantling of equipment should be left to the experts.

* Handle CFLs and fluorescent tubes with care to prevent breakage.

* Be careful with TV screens and computer screens. In old cathode-ray tubes, the glass contains lead and LCD screens contain mercury.

* Take batteries and mercury-containing lamps, such as CFLs and fluorescent tubes, to collection points at Woolworths, Makro and Pick n Pay (usually there are special containers at the stores’ entrances)

Share this article: