Design for Disposal: The Premature End to Today’s Electronics and other Products

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

Our planet is taking quite a beating. This has never been more evident than today given that, thus far, 4.8 million gallons of oil has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

What can we do to help this planet? I’ll go with my strong suit and tackle some problems with design-the first step in the process of consumption. We are constantly designing things to be used briefly then thrown away (consider packaging.) I have addressed this issue before (Greener Electronics Start with Smarter Designs and Designing Wastefulness.)  But I was given a new lease on the topic after hearing a 7-year-old confirm my aggravation.

A couple weeks ago the Sustainable Electronics Initiative set up a booth at an expo called “Naturally Illinois” held by the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability. Over 1000 students walked through the expo and looked at about 50 exhibits all having to do with modern science conducted at the University of Illinois.

Our booth housed a kid friendly information board displaying electronic waste information. A curious 7-year-old came up to our booth and after we gave a brief explanation of electronic waste and why/how big the problem is, he responded with the question: “Why don’t they just make computers that last 100 years?”

One of the answers to this question is an easy one: planned obsolescence. The reason why this is one of the answers is more complicated.

Planned obsolescence is when a manufacturer consciously designs a product to not last as long as it could so that consumers will purchase more of those products. Razors that indicate they should be changed by a strip that wears away before the actual end of life of the razor is an example of planned obsolescence.

Despite the image painted in my mind after hearing this definition, planned obsolescence was probably not hatched by mustache twirling guys with an evil laugh. Companies need consumers to continuously purchase their products and if their consumers stop buying after one purchase that company will probably not last very long.

But there are ways a business can thrive while being sustainable. In fact, sustainability often helps profits. Not only will consumers trust the quality of the products if they are not designed for obsolescence and therefore keep buying from that company, they will also pass this information to their friends–in this age of the Internet and easy communication, having quality long-lasting products will be noticed. There are also other ways in which companies can keep having the consumers come back for more. Making components or entire products out of materials that can safely decompose will allow consumers to responsibly throw them away and then buy more. (See this article about biodegradable shoes.)

We don’t have to stop at biodegradable materials. I hope designers continue to incorporate things that can be reused, upgraded, easily disassembled, or made from other products. An example of a product that starts to address this concept is Motorola’s phone, “Renew,” which has a casing made of 100% recycled materials.

Have you recently thought of a great invention?  Think about how it can be made with something you are throwing away and what will happen to that product when you are done using it.

Leave a Reply