Friday, July 07, 2006

Landfilled to the brim

Maybe it’s because I have gone ga-ga for Al Gore, the new environmental spokeshunk, but I am mad as hell at the high-priced junk peddlers otherwise known as the consumer electronics industry.

I’d like to say that I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. But it’s not that simple. Unless I elect to live the next half of my life off the grid, which is looking increasingly appealing, I will be forced, like everyone else, to keep buying high-priced, toxic gadgets in the never-ending quest to remain suitably wired.

Through clever engineering or plain dumb luck, nearly every item requiring a power supply seems to break within two to three years after you pry it out of the Styrofoam, toss aside the owner’s manual, plug it in and fire it up. This timely obsolescence creates a bounty of shopping ops beloved by manufacturers and retailers.

Yesterday, the hard drive in my daughter’s 2½-year old iPod croaked its last. Apple kindly offers to fix it for about $250, which – surprise! – happens to be $50 less than the cost of a new, “improved” one. Now, I have a choice between shelling out 300 bucks for another machine or facing two months of summer vacation with a teenager consigned to permanent radio silence.

Earlier this year, a Maxxtor external drive stopped cold less than six months after purchase but, conveniently for the company, three months after the 90-day warranty expired. To Maxxtor’s credit, the company sent me a free replacement (after I repeatedly called the president’s office for a few weeks), though I fear the useless returned product was chucked summarily into a nearby dump.

As though on cue, cell phones begin to disintegrate six months before the two-year contract expires, enabling the carrier to “upgrade” you to a new phone at a higher-priced, more restrictive service plan for another two years. Mighty AT&T-Cingular-AT&T couldn’t sell me a replacement phone to work with my current, reasonably favorable service plan, but a friendly clerk furtively told me I could acquire a black-market phone from a nearby shop. So, that’s what I did.

Don’t even get me started on computers, printers and fax machines. I am sure you have your own stories, anyway.

The point is this: The accelerating hyper-disposability of electronic products is not only costly and inconvenient for consumers, but also represents a large and growing environmental crisis.

Between 1997 and 2007, nearly 500 million personal computers – two for every one citizen – will be discarded in the United States, predicts the National Recycling Coalition, a not-for-profit conservation group.

With high-definition and larger-than-life plasma TVs invading living rooms, the group predicts the imminent disposition of tons of often perfectly-good tubes, not to mention all the dead iPods, Walkmen, cell phones, PDAs and other digital detritus.

These products, of course, don’t decompose the way organic matter will. But they are not merely inert and bulky dump fodder.

They are toxic, with a capital T.

“Electronic products often contain hazardous and toxic materials that pose environmental risks if they are landfilled or incinerated,” reports the NRC, continuing:
Televisions and video and computer monitors use cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which have significant amounts of lead. Printed circuit boards contain primarily plastic and copper, and most have small amounts of chromium, lead solder, nickel and zinc. In addition, many electronic products have batteries that often contain nickel, cadmium and other heavy metals. Relays and switches in electronics, especially older ones, may contain mercury. Also, capacitors in some types of older and larger equipment that is now entering the waste stream may contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
One solution to the problem, as noted above, might be to eschew electronic widgets. But that’s not practical for most of us.

Another would be to create biodegradable gizmos, which for the most part seems beyond the grasp of current technology. (Short of that, there are a growing number of programs that will repurpose functioning devices and safely recycle dead ones. If you are disposed to dispose of something, please dump responsibly.)

But I am particularly fond of a third option: Making products that last. And yes, Mr. Jobs, it can be done. Consider two examples:

:: When AT&T controlled the telephone business as a lawfully sanctioned monopoly, all telephones were made by its subsidiary, Western Electric. Because Ma Bell wisely wanted to maximize the investment it put into building and installing every phone, its phones were made to last. Our two Western Electric phones, which we schlepped to San Francisco from Chicago in 1984, are 30 to 40 years old. They have outlasted three of four generations of latter-day digital wannabes.

:: We have a black-and-white, portable Panasonic TV given to us by a friend who was moving out of Chicago in the 1970s. The lipstick-red set, which still works perfectly today, happens to look so cool that it is listed in several catalogues of 20th Century industrial design.

The lesson is that there is no reason for functionality or design to compromise durability.

In light of the growing environmental crisis posed by the proliferation of unreliable and forcibly obsolescent toxic electronic junk, the industry should responsibly address the problem by making longer-lasting products out of safer materials.

If the manufacturers don’t do it on their own, then government ought to make them.