What's your poison?
Guardian.co.uk, October 19, 2002
Many gadgets contain nasty chemicals and will never biodegrade. So, can we covet them and love the
The concept of "planned obsolescence1" 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 transient2
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 wedded3 to buying
the latest gadgets4. 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
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 punters5? 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 landfill6".
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
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 leach7 nasty contaminants8 . "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 incinerated9 for power supply.
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 act10, too. Consumers can choose
solar-powered gizmos11 - calculators, radios, watches; or they can use rechargeable and recycled batteries.
Panasonic uses lead-free solder12; Sony has "greened" its latest Walkman/radio with decomposable "plastic"
made from corn. There's even a growing range of green gimmicks13: clockwork torches, clocks powered by
potatoes and mouse mats made of recycled tyres.
Will this create a new glut14 of eco-friendly junk? Possibly. But at least today's wastemakers will
have to be more responsible than those before.
1. obsolescence - Veralterung, wertverlust
2. transient -kurzlebig
3. to be wedded to sth. - mit etw. verheiratet sein [fig.]
4. gadget - Gerät, technische Spielerei
5. lowly punters - einfache, bescheidene Kunden
6. landfill - Mülldeponie
7. to leach - durchsickern lassen
8. contaminant - Schadstoff, Kotaminat
9. incinerate - verbrennen
10. to get in on the act - in die Sache einsteigen
11. gizmo - das Ding
12. solder - Lötmittel, Lötmetall
13. gimmick - ausgefallene Idee, Mätzchen
14. glut - Fülle, Überangebot
1. Why is it that people are compelled to continuously buy electronic eqipments?
2. How - according to Friends of the Earth - would a responsible consumer behave?
3. Why is it so hard to get rid of outmoded electronic gadgets?
4. Why are consumers 'caught between two stools'?
5. What does the new EU directive say and what does it want to achieve?
6. Why are old mobile phones potentially hazardous to our environment?
7. What can the ordinary consumer do to avoid the ver increasing dangerous waste?
8. What techniques does the newspaper article use to get and hold its readers' attention?