Published on Thursday, April 13, 2006 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Electronic Waste a Ticking Time Bomb
by Giles Slade
So the telegraph is no more. It served us well for 148 years. Now the film camera is dying at age 117. The sleek cell phone you bought just two years ago is obsolete, too -- even if the thing still works. And Wall Street couldn't be more delighted at the quickening pace of obsolescence.
Konica-Minolta's stock surged this month after it announced it would abandon its film-based products. Kodak, which pioneered the film camera in 1889, will probably also stop making film cameras, because its sales from digital products have outstripped those of its film-based line. Nikon, the industry standard, has already stopped making most of its film cameras.
These companies have realized two things. First, a digital camera in inexperienced hands is nearly as good as a film camera in the best hands. Second, digital photography will be a healthy source of product obsolescence for decades, because improvements will come along every six months. And consumers are happy to spend good money to upgrade.
A similar cycle of improvement, consumption and obsolescence defines all successful electronic products. And because manufacturers are aware of their products' increasingly short life spans, they usually "underbuild" the more expensive components to save money. After about a year, for example, the batteries of iPods start losing their capacity to hold a charge. True, Apple has a cumbersome mail-in program that allows you replace the battery for $60. But iPods are not meant to be repaired. They are meant to be replaced by newer models and thrown away. That's why Apple seals the battery inside the iPod case. And that's why some iPod customers are now very angry.
The practice of deliberately making electronic devices disposable began with transistor radio production in the mid-1950s. The first pocket radio, Raytheon's Belmont Boulevard of 1945, came with spare vacuum tubes. Do it yourselfers could fix it themselves. But by the time Sony shipped the TR-63 to the American market in 1957, transistors were hand-soldered into tiny circuit boards, making radios effectively unrepairable because of expensive labor costs. Very soon the casings of Japanese radios began to reflect this disposability. They were offered in a changing variety of fashions and colors and were made of brittle plastic.
Other manufacturers soon understood that underbuilding and promoting obsolescence made them more competitive. Second-generation -- 2G -- cell phones, for example, were originally made to last five years. When it became obvious that they were being retired after only 18 months, manufacturers lowered standards, cut costs and introduced new models.
Manufacturers, of course, want you to spend your money. And nothing discourages them from creating mountains of electronic waste while they encourage you to do just that. Unlike Europe, the United States has no electronic-waste laws that compel manufacturers to disassemble their discarded products to make it possible to recycle them.
This problem has become enormous and extremely dangerous, because electronic devices contain permanent toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and barium. By 2009, 250 million computers will become obsolete. By that time, 300 million TVs will have to be replaced with digital upgrades. At about 11 pounds each, TV screens contain much more lead than computer monitors do. The total lead in discarded computers and analog TVs will amount to 4 million to 5 million tons -- and it will soon be leaching into groundwater near you.
Maine now forces electronic manufacturers to collect and recycle discarded TVs and computer screens. Its law was unique until Gov. Chistine Gregoire signed Washington's own electronic recycling bill. The strong bipartisan support ESSB 6428 received is a clear indication that what we do with electronic waste has become a mainstream issue.
But much more needs to be done. Nationally, the United States is simply unprepared to deal with the time bomb contained in electronic waste. If Congress does not act quickly, the damage done by Hurricane Katrina tragedy will pale next to the poisoning of our water by America's obsolete trash.
Still want that BlackBerry? Of course you do.Giles Slade is the author of the forthcoming, "Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America."
© 2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer