Planned obsolescence is a business strategy, and it’s a very good strategy if we’re talking about business growth and revenue-sustainability. Environmental sustainability, however? Not quite the same story.
The concept of planned obsolescence is relatively basic. Manufacturers put an expiry date on appliances, accessories and pretty much everything we purchase for use in modern life. This can be anything from phones, computers and fridges, to what we wear such as shoes and jeans. However, it is most apparent with electronic equipment, heavily contributing to the 40 million tonnes a year of global electrical waste, affectionately known as WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment).
By giving products a limited life span - the definition of planned obsolescence -, consumers will inevitably re-purchase in a few years’ time, perpetually fuelling a cycle of life-death-landfill. Far from the zero-waste and circular economy model we should all be striving towards.
Mining for raw materials has negative environmental and social impacts, and that’s before they enter into the manufacturing process. Electronic equipment can contain materials such as metal, glass, plastic, ceramics and precious metals; on a planet with finite resources the loss of these due to leaching and build up in landfill is only the surface of a much bigger problem. Lead, mercury and cadmium are all toxic substances with various health threats if they enter the environments of surrounding communities. Furthermore, imports of WEEE are often dumped in lesser developed countries posing risks to those who are most vulnerable.
But do we have a choice?
Advancements in technology and fast-changing trends means we are seeing product releases every year, sometimes even more frequent. And if it’s not a new product, then there are continuous software updates making older models incompatible.
Planned obsolescence isn't something new. We all already realised that products are created with shorter life spans and of lesser quality these days, but it’s not impossible to steer away from this detrimental cycle. There are many brands whose quality of products and life span far outweigh others, so choosing to purchase from these more sustainable brands is a step in the right direction.
Legislation could also play a role. For example, in France, it is illegal for companies to intentionally shorten the life span of a product, and businesses could be liable for a fee of €300,000 and two-years imprisonment if found to be guilty of this. Additionally, the European Parliament approved its Resolution in July 2017 on a longer lifetime for products: benefits for consumers and companies.
At First Mile we follow the waste hierarchy, promoting reduction and re-use ahead of recycling. However, when these electrical goods do come to the end of their lifecycle, it’s critical that they are disposed of in the right way. WEEE recycling extracts precious raw materials from these products which can be re-used, and it also means hazardous chemicals are not leached into the environment through irresponsible and incorrect disposal.
Read more about how to recycle phones, wires, fridges and other electronic equipment here.
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