There’s no denying that Australians love their stuff—after all, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, each one of us threw out an average of 2100 kg of stuff in 2007. Unfortunately, a significant portion of this rubbish is made up of last year’s mobile phones, last season’s sneakers and other perfectly serviceable goods that just aren’t fashionable anymore.
The idea of encouraging us to turf out perfectly good shoes or toss a still-functioning mobile phone is one that many companies have been pushing for quite some time.
The idea itself is called “planned obsolescence,” and the term was first coined by industrial designer Clifford Brooks Stevens in 1954. Planned obsolescence describes the various means by which manufacturers leave us wanting (or perhaps needing) something a little newer, a little more efficient and a little more fashionable. And it’s a tool that many manufacturers are rather adept at wielding.
Some different types of planned obsolescence include
- designs that make repairing a damaged product difficult or impossible
- designs that are meant to wear out before the product itself does
- products that need other products or services to maintain them
- “death dating,” where a product is built with certain fragile components, causing the whole unit to fail once those components have broken
Old laptops, top-loading washing machines and updated software are examples of items that can (or did) fall victim to planned obsolescence.
The idea of having consumers come back for the latest and greatest each year may be great for manufacturers and retailers alike, but this explosion of goods into our homes—and eventually our landfills—can cause serious repercussions on our health and the environment.
The stinking results
The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” doesn’t exactly apply when the many goods we no longer find good enough make their way into local landfills.
Electronic goods, for instance, are known to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flame retardants, as well as heavy metals such as lead, chromium, cadmium and mercury. These chemicals and metals have been linked to various cancers, developmental disorders, disorders of the reproductive system and a laundry list of other serious health concerns.
Outdated appliances—including washing machines, clothes dryers, stoves, refrigerators and many other machines for modern convenience—carry their own less-than-ideal components. Fridges, for instance, use the aptly named chemicals known as “refrigerants” to keep our milk cool and our ice cubes frozen.
Commonly used refrigerants include ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons, all of which can affect our health. Older fridges may use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were banned in 1996 due to their ozone-depleting quality.
Couches are another known carrier of toxic flame retardants. Both couches and mattresses are often treated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which disrupt normal organ and immune function in animal studies and take years to break down.
When these computers, fridges and other consumer products end up in the landfill, the dangerous chemicals they contain slowly leach into the surrounding soil and groundwater or dissipate into the air.
Throwing away perfectly good or prematurely dated products, of course, only makes the matter worse.
Steps in the right (green) direction
When it comes to getting rid of old goods in an ethical manner, the old “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra still rings true. Most of our no-longer-loved purchases can be diverted from landfills and instead be repurposed, recycled or re-homed.
In the case of electronic waste—old laptops, computers, mobile phones, TVs, printers or other devices—Australia is in the process of playing catch-up to the rest of the developed world.
While the telecommunications industry has been operating a national mobile phone recycling scheme since 1998 via Mobile Muster, it was only in 2011 that the government introduced a national industry-funded recycling scheme for televisions and computers, allowing people to drop off their unwanted electronic goods free of charge at over 380 recycling points around the country, including at 230 participating retail outlets.
The scheme currently processes about a third of Australia’s discarded televisions and computers, but is aiming for 80 per cent by 2022. To find your nearest drop-off point for electronic waste, visit Planet Ark’s Recycling Near You website (recyclingnearyou.com.au).
If your electronic item still has life in it, a charity shop may be more than happy to take it. You could also try giving it away through an online forum such as Freecycle (freecycle.org) or Oz Recycle (ozrecycle.com). When it finds a new home, it can be picked up by—or posted to—the next owner.
Appliances and furniture
Australians are becoming more eco-conscious; 27 per cent who replace their major appliances say energy efficiency is their most important consideration when buying a new appliance.
However, that still leaves a lot of older and less energy- and water-efficient models out there to be disposed of. While it may not seem as simple or convenient to remove dated appliances—large or small—from the household, we’re luckily still offered plenty of options.
Many councils around the country have specific take-back programs and recycling facilities in place. Appliances can be dropped off at the facilities or picked up from your doorstep and properly recycled or otherwise disposed of. To find your nearest drop-off point or pick-up service, visit (recyclingnearyou.com.au).
Second-hand furniture shops, charity stores and websites exist where saggy lounges, old mattresses and other dated furniture can be swapped, sold or given away. A smattering of organisations will dismantle and recycle furniture, often for a small fee.
Alternatively, ask around to see if a local business, nonprofit or other organisation is looking for a free couch to line a waiting room or lounge.
The bottom line
The best way to ensure your eco-conscience remains light (and your wallet remains heavy) is to be a conscious consumer.
Next time you find yourself eyeing that shiny new 30-inch monitor or sleek leather lounge, ask yourself if your slightly smaller monitor or current couch still serve their functions well, or if there’s an easy way—such as throwing a cover on top of the cat-scratched cushions—to breathe new life into these old items.
There’s no denying that we live in a throwaway society. The most effective way to show manufacturers and retailers that we’re no longer interested in upgrading our goods every few years is simply to stop doing it.
In 1992, Australia became a signatory to the Basel Convention, a global agreement under the United Nations to control the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and their disposal. The Convention works to reduce the production of hazardous waste, such as heavy metal and toxic chemicals found in our old laptops and mobile phones, and promote eco-friendly options to get rid of this waste.
Under the Convention, Australia regulates the transport of all e-waste, making it illegal for recyclers to ship old computer components overseas. However, many Australians are concerned that their e-waste is still illegally shipped overseas to places like west Africa and Asia to be dismantled in poorly regulated ways.
One way to make sure that our end-of-life e-waste is being managed ethically is to educate ourselves about who’s doing the recycling. Councils as well as the organisations approved by the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme have standards and mandates in place, making them safe options for eco-friendly recyclers.
Most private recyclers also have their own standards. But, to avoid leaving products with those unscrupulous few, don’t be afraid to ask questions to learn where the e-waste goes and what happens to it once it’s been shredded or dismantled.