How to make technology greener? End planned obsolescence

It’s the time of year when those who are lucky may find a shiny, new device under the tree, and others may snag one during Boxing Week sales. 

But too often, the shine comes off those new devices far sooner than we expect. 

Many of us are frustrated by how soon new high-tech devices like smartphones break or just don’t work as well anymore, forcing us to replace them — a concept sometimes called “planned obsolescence.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Advocates say not only is it possible for manufacturers to make longer-lasting, easier-to-repair devices, but it’s necessary on an Earth with limited resources.

“I think people understand that they’re sort of locked into a racket with technology like phones and televisions and computers, where there’s no such thing as a device that you keep for a long time,” said Rolf Skar, a special project manager at the environmental group, Greenpeace USA.

“Part of that is the development of better technologies, but it can’t be denied that part of it is they’re planning to sell you another phone in a year and half.”

The big footprint of new devices

The short lifespan of many consumer electronics comes at a high environmental cost. The devices, as well as apps and services such as streaming video, use a lot of energy. It’s a problem companies such as Google and Apple have tried to address by investing in green energy.

But 85 to 95 per cent of a smartphone’s carbon footprint comes from production, according to researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton. That’s partly due to the energy that goes into mining gold and rare-earth elements used to power the devices.

“We focus a lot of our attention on energy use, but we don’t always focus attention on materials use,” said Colleen Thorpe, executive director of Équiterre, a Canadian non-profit organization focused on sustainability.

Extracting and using up the Earth’s resources through practices such as mining has a huge impact, and not just on carbon emissions. 

“It really devastates landscapes [and] creates lots of pollution,” Thorpe said. “Every time we take materials from the natural world … we’re having an impact on biodiversity because we’re going into habitats and we’re taking trees from animals.”

Mining can also have a negative impact on local communities, and the mining of some elements used in smartphones is linked to conflicts and human rights abuses. Not to mention that before long, devices often end up as potentially hazardous e-waste, which the UN says is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world, comprising 53.6 million tonnes in 2019, up 21 per cent in just five years. Of that, only 17.4 per cent is formally collected and recycled.

For all those reasons, Thorpe said it’s important to try to use as few resources as possible — “and when we make something, that it lasts as long as possible.”

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