What's your poison?
Many gadgets contain nasty chemicals and will never biodegrade. So, can we covet them and love the environment,
Oliver Bennett investigates
October 19, 2002
The concept of "planned obsolescence" created a huge stir when it was first identified by Vance Packard in
his 1960 book The Waste Makers. Packard's theory was that manufacturers designed products to have a short
life, thereby committing us to a constant cycle of consumption.
Four decades on, we are in the age of junk electronics as never before. Today's technology is so transient
it goes from shelf to bin in a matter of months. The average computer is changed every two years, the typical
mobile phone every 18 months. Two million televisions are trashed every year. Yet, the pressure to buy new
stuff is enormous - What! You haven't got a digital widescreen TV yet? Loser!
While the idea of being a responsible consumer is nice in principle, many of us are too wedded to buying
the latest gadgets. Mike Childs, a senior campaigner at Friends Of The Earth, understands this human
instinct to acquire, but reckons that we need to resist it. "We should step back and ask ourselves: what
are the implications of buying these things?" he says. If buy we must, then manufacturers should design
hardware that "can be upgraded rather than changed" and be penalised if they do not "design out waste".
Some companies are taking note. Honda and Toyota have adopted a catch-all recycling strategy known as "zero
waste" - something also practised by New Zealand, the cities of Canberra and Toronto and some UK local
authorities, such as Bath and North East Somerset council.
But what about us lowly punters? There are few options for what to do with old technology. It's often not
worth repairing, and anyway, there are few repairers left. The second-hand market has crashed: schools and
charity shops have been inundated. So old equipment gathers dust in lofts and cupboards, in what Sarah Bond,
of recycling company Shields Environmental, calls "home landfill".
We are caught between two stools. On one hand, waste directives mean that we now can't dump certain items,
even if we wanted to: old televisions and PCs are now proscribed as potentially hazardous, each bearing a
kilo or two of lead. Yet, on the other hand, there isn't a systematic route for responsible disposal.
Coming soon, though, is the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, due to pass through
the European Parliament by 2004. This will oblige manufacturers and retailers to take back for recycling all
the TVs, stereos, et al, they've sold.
And, slowly, things are beginning to happen here. For example, Shields Environmental recently launched
Fonebak, a mobile phone recycling scheme, where you send in dud phones or take them back to a participating
store. Fifteen million mobiles are replaced each year in the UK, each with the potential to leach nasty
contaminants . "The worst ones are the old 'bricks'," says Sarah Bond. "A battery from one of these is
enough to pollute 600,000 litres of water with cadmium." With Fonebak, metals are extracted and re-deployed;
some phones are "remanufactured" to sell in developing countries; and casings are incinerated for power
In tiny ways, we can already prevent gadget waste. There are several places to buy eco-friendly electronics
(see left). Mainstream companies are getting in on the act, too. Consumers can choose solar-powered
gizmos -calculators, radios, watches; or they can use rechargeable and recycled batteries. Panasonic uses
lead-free solder; Sony has "greened" its latest Walkman/radio with decomposable "plastic" made from corn.
There's even a growing range of green gimmicks: clockwork torches, clocks powered by potatoes and mouse
mats made of recycled tyres.
Will this create a new glut of eco-friendly junk? Possibly. But at least today's wastemakers will have to
be more responsible than those before.
1. Explain in your own words some of the things that ordinary people can do to increase the recycling
of consumer goods.
2. What techniques does the newspaper article use to get and hold its readers' attention?
ad 1) First of all we should buy hardware that be upgraded rather than having to be replaced or choose products
that have a 'zero waste' policy. Two things that used to be sensible were repairing things rather than throwing them
away and giving things to charity. Unfortunately there are few repairers left and schools and charities have too much to
sell nowadays. We can use a service like 'Fonebak' to recycle mobile phones and prevent them from harming
the environment. We can also choose solar-powered calculators, radios or watches or use rechargeable and
recycled batteries. finally we can buy 'green' products like clockwork torches, potato powered clocks or mouse
mats made from reycled tyres.
ad 2) The newspaper's main attention grabber is its haedline, 'What's your poison?'. This is quite a striking phrase but
it is also familiar because it is sometimes used when people are offering a choice of food or drink. It turns out that
the article is actually about poison but the reader has to investigate the article a little further to find this out.
The second technique that the article uses is the sub-heading. This explains what the article is about but is also designed
to increase the raeder curiosity as it contains a question. The language of the sub-heading is quite informal,
using words like 'nasty' rather than, say, 'dangerous' or 'environmentally challenging'. The body continues in an informal tone.
('What! You haven't got a digital widescreen TV yet? Loser!')