Last year it was estimated that the world generated more than 25 million tonnes of tech gadget e-waste, with only around 20 percent of it officially recycled but the tide is changing. It is a tragedy of modern society that once a gadget breaks down most of us will throw it away and and replace it with something brand new, but it is not only consumers that are to blame. Manufacturers generally do not offer replacement parts for sale or technical manuals on how to repair their products and some have actively slowed older devices in order to encourage people to upgrade after just a couple of years.
“Planned obsolescence” has been around for nearly a century, with early automobile manufacturers inventing the idea when the car market began to reach saturation in the US. However, the intricacy of modern technology means that the products are often too complex to be broken down and turned into scrap, creating mountains of e-waste.
However, progress is being made against this culture of obsolescence. In the US, Apple has agreed to pay up to $500m (£375m) in settlements related to allegations the iPhone-maker released software updates that caused older phones to slow down. The company denies any wrongdoing, but also paid a €25m (£21m) fine over the same allegations and more critically will not continue the practice in the future. The firm’s recent ad campaign in the UK has even promoted the value of iPhones in the resale market, finally admitting that these £1000 gadgets should work well beyond their original two or three year shelf-life.
Many consumers are already ahead of the curve. Many mobile networks are actively advertising refurbished smartphones to their customers, promoting the benefits of buying a device that may have cost four figures 18-months-ago for less than half that today. And specialist refurbished technology stores like Back Market have sprung up around the world to satisfy consumer demand for cheaper gadgets whilst still guaranteeing quality with a full year’s warranty.
It is understandable that manufacturers are not excited about consumers opting for refurbished smartphones over brand new models, as they do not generate profits from device resale. But pollution and waste are a global problem that affects all of us and so no company should be permitted to sell gadgets that cannot be repaired or recycled, and governments and multinational institutions are finally starting to address the issue.
As part of a policy initiative to halve waste across the EU by 2030, the European Commission has recently announced proposals that would ensure a broad range of technology products will be “recyclable, repairable and designed to last longer” in the future. The specifics of these proposals remain unclear, but it is only legislation on the governmental level that will compel companies like Amazon to stop using glued plastic to create their Kindle devices, making them impossible to prise open, or Apple to move away from using obscure Pentalobe screws to hold its devices together, which mean iPhone and MacBook users need to buy specialist tools to repair.
In the face of governmental legislation to compel them to offer repairable devices and consumers who are actively looking to buy refurbished devices, maybe we can finally address the e-waste issue of the last decade’s tech revolution.