Designing Wastefulness

Note: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

In one of my classes at the University of Illinois, each student was assigned to study a modern product in depth and then give a presentation on it a couple weeks later. The overall theme for the presentations was, “Newer is Better!” Whether it was a presentation about LED lights, Blue Ray lasers, Teflon, or electronics, the message was clear, this new technology far exceeds the old so it’s out with the old, in with the new.

I agree that most of these products exceed their earlier generation versions. They usually offer more features, perform better, and they even often use less energy. I am all for better designs, in fact, that is what my 4 years of undergrad in Industrial Design was all about.

I am, however, fearful that these designs encourage wastefulness.

We all like to hope that when we recycle our old shower radio for a bigger and better model the old version is broken down piece-by-piece and recycled appropriately or reused but in fact, that is rarely the case. The best that most electronic recyclers can do is to extract some precious metals by safely melting the hardware. This is not meant to discourage you from recycling your electronics, by all means, that is far better than the alternative – landfills. It is however meant to point out that we don’t have to stop at recycling.

There has been a lot of hype about Apple’s new iPad and even great claims to its sustainability but I have to question if, despite its attempts, it will just be more unnecessary e-waste 10 years from now. Is this something consumers will buy instead of iPods or laptops or is this just a luxury item? “Inhabitat” has a great article discussing just this.

If we slowed down the, “old is bad” mindset which is currently encouraged by advertising, we could not only have a chance to use our products to their full potential but it would also perhaps give designers a chance to consider allowing for updates built into the original design. This can already be seen in such products as carpet tiles. Desso, for instance, provides easily replaceable carpet tiles so that if a there is a spill, one can simply replace one small tile instead of the entire section of carpet.


Stanford business professors have a similar idea about a solution to slowing down the e-waste stream. They seem to suggest that nationwide legislation could be the answer we are looking for.

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