(Or At Least for Several More Years)

The other day I read a short article about the projected 2012 release of the iPad 3. This new iteration of the iPad sounds pretty fabulous: sleeker design, better graphics, wireless charging and data transfer technology, etc. I thought to myself, “Hey, I’ll be buying things next year; maybe it’s time for an upgrade.”

Then I remembered my green values—and this short video on electronic waste by Annie Leonard.

Not only does Apple release newer, faster, better versions of its iPods, iPhones, and iPads with astonishing frequency, but it also makes these devices somewhat difficult to maintain. A month ago I took my iPod Mini to the recycler because I couldn’t figure out how to change the battery, which (as most of you probably realize) is sealed inside seemingly impenetrable casing. To be honest, I didn’t even think of replacing the battery until I started researching this post. I’m just that accustomed to the idea that consumer electronics are meant to be replaced, not repaired. Shame on me.

You see, folks, I have grown up in a country where planned obsolescence is the norm. Consumer electronics manufacturers design products or time product updates so that consumers continually spend money on their wares. This strategy is a big problem because most TVs, personal computers, tablets, cell phones, music players, and e-readers are full of various hazardous chemicals, such as lead, PVC, mercury, arsenic, and flame retardants, which have been linked to reproductive disorders and several cancers.* The more gadgets we buy, the more of these chemicals we introduce into our homes and offices—and the more e-waste we create by replacing our obsolete machines.

Twenty-five million tons of e-waste is generated every year. More often than not, this waste is dumped or burned, so in the disposal process all those toxins are released into our air, soil, and waterways. “Well, I recycle my old electronics,” you say. When you choose an electronics recycling program, make sure you do your research. About 70 to 80 percent of the waste given to e-cyclers is shipped overseas, where workers mine the machines for precious metals and then burn the rest. To ensure that your old gadgets are disposed of properly, choose a recycler certified by e-Stewards or conduct your own investigation using this list of questions.

In addition to the problems of toxins and disposal, we must consider the resources consumed as manufacturers create new machines to replace the obsolete ones. As The Daily Green put it, “Our insatiable appetite for stuff drives carbon emissions and pollution.” According to the Product Policy Institute (PPI), the provision and use of products and packaging accounts for 44 percent of U.S. global warming emissions (this statistic covers all consumer goods, not just electronics). The bulk of these emissions occur during the production phase, from materials extraction to manufacturing. PPI concludes that reducing consumption—by repairing broken items, going without, or steering clear of whatever hot new product is making your own stuff look outdated (you do not need that iPhone 5!)—offers the largest opportunity to combat global warming. Well, isn’t that interesting.

On that note, it turns out that a quick Internet search would’ve illuminated the process of changing my iPod Mini battery for myself. Had I known that five years ago, when the thing mysteriously stopped working, I may still be rocking a cute, pink, 4GB antique (or maybe the battery wasn’t the problem?). I will keep this in mind when my replacement iPod (which, at four years old, is still going strong) and my iPad start getting wonky on me.

I don’t mean to single out Apple as the only company—or consumer electronics as the only industry—that indulges in planned obsolescence. The practice has been around since the 1930s, and even light bulb manufacturers do it (see item 9). I don’t think any of our light bulbs have burned out this year (although Channing may have replaced them on the sly), but I have experienced planned obsolescence in the fashion arena. Recall that post in the spring about my urge to update my wardrobe with some newer styles. And then there’s Channing’s continual search for a fast and shiny new car and a bigger TV.

Still, with the constant barrage of updates to computer operating systems, phone networks, gaming systems, and sundry gadgetry, it’s hard not to isolate the electronics industry as an egregious offender. Once again, I’ll close with the moral “Think before you buy.”

Unless otherwise cited, facts are from Annie Leonard’s The Story of Electronics. If you have ten minutes to spare, please consider watching this video and sharing it with your friends.

For (excellent) tips on repairing various household items, see The Daily Green. While there you might also check out this list of things you didn’t know you could rent.

*Apple and other companies have started monitoring and reducing the amount of toxins in their products, as my friend Sarah pointed out in a comment on an earlier post. See this link.