Across the EU, we’re set to throw away 12 million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste by 2020 –that’s the same weight as nearly a million buses. This isn’t just because we’re amassing more and more stuff, it’s because the things we have are breaking more and more quickly.
Why does this matter?
Recycling a phone is a lot harder than recycling a book
And it should be the last resort.
Some stuff’s easy to recycle: things made of metals, glass and paper can be broken down and remade into new raw materials. But electronics are a different kettle of fish.
Inside phones, tablets and laptops are a sticky, fused mess of plastics, rare earths, toxic chemicals, and much more. Except for the metal parts, you can’t recycle this stuff.
Instead, manufacturing new products uses up finite natural resources which we can’t replace.
In part this is because most products are designed in ways that make them very difficult to take apart to recycle or use again – so they end up getting sent to landfill or incinerated. Other parts – such as rare earth metals – simply cannot be recovered for recycling at the moment, as they are present in such small amounts in each appliance.
Big energy drains and climate impacts
A big chunk of the energy used by products comes during the manufacturing process. 70% of the energy used by a laptop over its lifetime comes from the manufacturing process, and smartphones consume enough energy during manufacturing to power 1,200 light bulbs for an hour.
And if we replace products frequently, these impacts quickly stack up. Compare a washing machine that lasts five years with one that lasts for twenty: the energy demand and global warming potential of the former is around 40% higher than one which lasts 20 years – even accounting for future improvements in energy efficiency.
Who’s to blame?
The accelerating cycle of buy -> break -> buy
Manufacturers are often accused of making deliberately products that break early – so-called ‘planned obsolescence’. Such accusations are often leveled at the gadget industry, where product lifetimes are short and products difficult to repair.
Yet products also quickly find themselves out-of-date and non-usable in a number of other ways. Essential software upgrades that aren’t compatible with older products can force consumers to upgrade their laptops when there may otherwise be nothing wrong with them.
No time to test, we’ve got a TV to sell!
This quick turnover between models also means that there may not be enough time to fully check them for weaknesses which may cause them to break. For TVs, this can mean reducing the time spent testing for defects from several months to just a few weeks – meaning that only obvious weaknesses are investigated instead of more thorough inspections.
How do we fix it?