Planned obsolescence and its environmental impact
How often do you get a new mobile phone? And how about a computer? Or a TV? The chances are you have been 'upgrading' more frequently in recent years due, to a great extent, to the phenomenon of planned obsolescence. This phenomenon means that not only do technological gadgets stop working after a certain time but they are also considered obsolete when a better version is produced, or they simply become unfashionable. The result of this is that the amount of electronic waste is growing constantly and threatening the environment.
In recent decades, we have become accustomed to a fairly short product lifecycle, because products either wear out or become obsolete. In many cases, when an appliance breaks down, the manufacturer tells us it is not viable to repair it and suggests we buy a new one. However, these products stop working because they are designed to stop working and, in many cases, the manufacturer has carefully scheduled the end of their useful lives to force us to buy new products.
The dark side of this vicious cycle is that we have no option but to continuously replace certain products, generating immense quantities of waste, which is known as electronic waste. In the case of the European Union, it is estimated we produce more than 2.5 bn tonnes per year External link, opens in new window.. The alternative to this problem is the circular economy, which entails reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials and products whenever possible to extend their life cycle.
What is planned obsolescence
Planned obsolescence describes the practice of designing products to break quickly or become obsolete in the short to mid-term. The general idea behind this is to encourage sales of new products and upgrades, a practice that has been banned in some countries. The strategy is attributed to the motor industry in the United States when, in 1924, a General Motors executive, Alfred P. Sloan Jr suggested launching new models every year to keep sales moving.
Which products are affected by planned obsolescence
The planned obsolescence strategy has been applied to a wide range of consumer products for decades. As we said, cars are a clear example, but so are electronics, with everything from computers, televisions and mobile phones to household appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, etc. and software. Fashion is a serious problem because the textile industry is one of the worst polluters, as are the toy and furniture industries.
Advantages and disadvantages of planned obsolescence
Planned obsolescence is great for goods manufacturers and for the economy because it keeps sales stable and even growing year after year by encouraging consumption. At the same time, society also benefits from constant investment in R&D&i. However, the drawbacks are obvious, because tonnes of waste is produced and resources are overexploited. This affects the environment, as well as causing constant consumer dissatisfaction and stress because of the desire to have the latest models.
Types of planned obsolescence
These are the main types of planned obsolescence:
This happens when a computer, for example, can no longer be updated with the latest version of the operating system or new peripherals cannot be connected because the port standard has changed.
This happens, for example, when smartphone or fashion designers change the style of products to make the older ones appear less desirable.
Some products simply stop working or are deactivated after a certain date, forcing consumers to replace them even if they are still in a usable condition.
This occurs when a regulation is passed that forbids a product from being used, for example, diesel vehicles are no longer allowed into many European cities to reduce emissions.
Examples of planned obsolescence
Here are some specific examples of planned obsolescence strategies:
Making goods irreparable
Many consumer electronics are designed to make it impossible to repair them or replace parts. Sometimes it is physically impossible because the product carcass cannot be opened without breaking it or the pieces are welded together to prevent replacement.
This consists of designing products to wear out quickly, by using, for example, flimsy materials to manufacture parts that are subject to wear and tear. In the case of computers, the time comes when you can no longer upgrade the software because it is not compatible.
Some laptops, mobile phones and electric toothbrushes have lithium-ion batteries with a useful life of two or three years. These cannot be replaced by the owner of the device, who has no option but to buy a replacement.
Planned obsolescence and the environment
The most immediate consequence of constantly replacing products that either work perfectly but have gone out of style, or which have broken before they should, is an increase in electronic waste. The build-up of this waste, which is still not recycled as it should be, damages the environment which, in turn, contributes to climate change.
What's more, manufacturing cycles are getting shorter and shorter and they use larger amounts of raw materials, some of which are scarce and strategic. One of these is coltan, which makes it possible to reduce battery size. The process of transporting these products also consumes large amounts of energy, as well as increasing air pollution.
The battle against planned obsolescence
As individuals, we can reduce the impact of planned obsolescence on the environment by not making unnecessary purchases or buying items just to be fashionable and opting for recycled or recyclable products in the case of consumer electronics. Collectively, in 2015, the EU introduced a label stating how long products should last, which has been enshrined in law in France. The European Right to Repair External link, opens in new window. platform advocates for developing longer-lasting products and users' right to repair them and replace their components. Germany recently enacted a new law requiring mobile telephones to last for at least seven years.