Planned, or built-in, obsolescence may be extremely appealing to electronics manufacturers. It’s a way to ensure that demand for the devices they manufacture stays viable. With planned obsolescence, producers design their devices with built-in end-of-life scenarios. If you happen to purchase a mobile phone that’s designed to break down or even shut off completely after two years, that’s planned obsolescence at work.

But this often means bad news for the planet. While planned obsolescence is an excellent way to measure and ensure profits, it’s a disastrous way to add to, rather than diminish, the current electronics waste crisis.

Exploring Planned Obsolescence Further

Some say the ideas and theories behind planned obsolescence are purely capitalistic. Indeed, the thought of designing devices in such a way that they fail after a certain period of time or after a certain amount of use could reasonably motivate the average consumer to think so.

The impetus behind the concept of planned obsolescence is seems even more opportunistic. The idea is that planning the repair or replacement of a device during the design phase can create an enduring list of buyers – consumers duped into buying something designed from the start to break down, purely for the benefit of business. It definitely takes basic concepts of supply and demand one step further.

The problem, from an environmental sustainability point of view, is that the planned obsolescence scenario does not tend to take into account the impact that such design schemes have on the environment. That impact, theoretically and logically speaking, planned obsolescence creates waste – more devices in need of disposal – adding to our ever-growing waste stream issues.

Planned obsolescence spans the gamut of materials design. A varied number of items, from cars to (some say) iPhones have been designed with planned short-term product cycles for years. Most refer to the story of the invention and subsequent planned obsolescence of the light bulb to illustrate and explain the practice. In particular for electronics, planned obsolescence has a number of important impacts related to e-waste, and more specifically, to recycling.

Planned Obsolescence, Recycling and Ewaste

Ink cartridges in printers, tablet processors and irreplaceable batteries in smartphones are all popular forms of planned obsolescence.

It is commonly known that today’s electronic devices do not age gracefully. Successive generations of updates can render some devices completely out-of-date just a short time aftger purchase. This means consumers are constantly encouraged to seek out and purchase the newest squeaky clean update. What happens to the old device?

Typically, nothing. Unless an old device is traded into a manufacturer with close ties to a reliable recycler, old devices can pile up as consumers hoard or irresponsible discard them in illegal ways. Many of these devices end up in “tech graveyards” – home desk drawers, garages, basements, attics and business storage rooms around the globe. In worst case scenarios, they end up in landfills illegally or piled high in the notorious e-waste mountains of developing countries in west Africa, India or China.
Even though consumers find planned obsolescence frustrating, many of the new tech markets pressure buyers to participate in the planned obsolescence schemata. Some types of obsolescence is even so normalized, such as the automobile model year) that we don’t even take a second look.

Without big picture information on the entire process of planned obsolescence and what it means for the planet, the results could be less than ideal for the environment.

Video games and video game consoles without backwards compatibility are an example of planned obsolescence.

Smartphones and tablets are not the only devices designed NOT to stand the test of time. Video games and video game consoles have long been fashioned in the planned obsolescence model. The simple fact that most games are not backwards compatible, meaning that old games cannot work on new consoles and vice versa, are a simple form of planned obsolescence that most gaming consumers have simply accepted and come to expect.

But this means that, unless such obsolete devices are repaired or sold used, the obvious result is that they end up improperly disposed, thus adding to the current e-waste crisis. Widespread improper disposal multiplied over the burgeoning amounts of consumer tech purchases means challenging impacts on the planet over time.

Suppression of widespread superior (longer lasting) technology is a lesser known form of planned obsolescence.

The more subtle forms of planned obsolescence tend to further exacerbate its harmful environmental impacts. These forms often to take on more sinister and villainous scenarios highlighting the competitive nature of industry and economics.

One historical example is the suppression of new technology or new devices with longer product cycles by companies that design their products with planned obsolescence. As the environmental perils of planned obsolescence become more obvious, we might expect to see the practice take on more subtlety. Hopefully, this will not be the case, however, as the effects on both consumer and environment are far less than favorable.

Planned obsolescence is in most instances currently legal.

Most governments have no laws against planned obsolescence. Companies that manufacture electronic devices are generally free to build and design their products with limited durability if they choose to do so.

However, at least one country is beginning to rethink these freedoms. France has proposed laws that would curb and regulate planned obsolescence. In 2015, by French government decree, manufacturers were made to reveal the obsolescence dates or timelines designed into their products in an effort to make consumers aware and grant the public the privilege of informed consumer choices.

Sustainable electronics recycling may be the best way to “balance out” the negative impacts of planned obsolescence.

France’s attempt at combating the negative effects of planned obsolescence with formal legislation may prove to be a vital one for other countries as well. If the trend catches it on, it may just be the preventative measure needed to ensure that fewer devices are contributing to our current e-waste crisis.

Currently, one of the best ways to balance out the negative impacts of planned obsolescence is electronics recycling. For obvious reasons, certified recycling stands as our best bet for addressing the e-waste pile-up currently coming in from almost every direction, including planned obsolescence.

Consumers informed about the long-term effects of planned obsolescence may prefer repairs, trade-in or even buying used in the long run. Definitely, demonstrating to consumers that recycling is one of the best options for decreasing negative environmental impacts would be one way of keeping planned obsolescence from quickly becoming planned disaster.

By ERI