Electronic devices have an expiry date, a problem that affects consumers and beyond. One of the best known examples so far is the lifespan of smartphones. The Achilles’ heel of these devices lies mainly in the batteries. So much so that there are already tools available to check the condition of batteries, although this is still an area where manufacturers can improve.
Thanks to the change in mentality regarding the management of natural resources and care for the environment and the promotion of trends such as the circular economy, manufacturers and consumers are focusing on achieving more respectful formulas in line with the new ways of consuming: reduce, reuse and recycle. Hence the importance of knowing what planned obsolescence is, what types exist and how it can be combated.
What is planned obsolescence?
Planned obsolescence is the failure of a product in a determined and planned way in its manufacturing process. It generally occurs in electronics and also limits their lifetime, and usually occurs before the product is fully worn out due to use. Planned obsolescence is fixed before going to market in order to provide a new incentive to buy.
And although it may seem otherwise, this is not a new practice, since already in the 19th century the textile industry used more starch and less cotton to make fabrics less durable. With the advent of the consumer society, this practice gained momentum and more and more companies began to include it in their products. Nowadays, the consumption of numerous electronic products also leads to the generation of such waste in large quantities.
Most prominent types of planned obsolescence
There are different types and aspects that reduce the shelf life of products.
- Fashion: this type is usually found in textile products and in connected devices, such as smartphones, as both sectors are in constant renewal. More and more consumers are deciding to buy a new product as it goes on sale, just to follow design trends.
- Electronic components: in this classification are those products that are damaged and their repair is too costly or the developer company simply prevents their improvement.
- Technology: Operating system upgrades mean that devices that are physically in good condition, but whose software is outdated, are left behind.
- Spare parts: companies stop producing spare parts or material necessary for appliances to continue to function.
What are the consequences of shortening the lifetime of electronic devices?
Planned obsolescence exists for two reasons. Mainly because it brings a large amount of economic benefits, as the company is in a continuous state of renewal. This factor is combined with the false need to be always up-to-date, which is encouraged by some advertising messages.
This trend has major environmental consequences, not only because of the increase in CO₂ emissions and the massive use of raw materials, but also because most of the waste generated ends up in mountains of rubbish that pollute natural areas, as they often incorporate toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury or arsenic in their manufacture.
The problem is so serious that there is already a term for electronic waste: e-waste. According to the report The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 produced by the United Nations, 17.4% of e-waste was collected and recycled worldwide in 2019, while 82.6% was disposed of in landfills.
This study also indicates that this is a global problem. By continent, Asia accumulates the most e-waste with 24.9 Mt, followed by America with 13.1 Mt and Europe with 12 Mt. Meanwhile, Africa and Oceania generate 2.9 Mt and 0.7 Mt respectively. In Europe, Spain is among the top 5 countries that generate between 20 and 25 kg of e-waste per capita.
How to combat planned obsolescence?
Consumers are increasingly critical and aware of the existence of this problem, and ways to combat it have been developed. They can now explore the options on the market to reduce, repair and even reuse electronic products. In this way one becomes a responsible consumer.
If recycling is chosen, it must be done correctly, there is a lot of misinformation about how to handle this waste. In many cases, electronic waste is thrown away without separating the toxic components, so the correct way to dispose of these products is through clean points and those spaces specially set up for their proper handling.
The second way is to repair. The new Consumer Law, which entered into force on 1 January 2022, extends the warranty on products and goods to 3 years and obliges manufacturers to repair their products for 10 years. Thus, the government proposes specific actions focused on a circular economy.
In addition to these political and legal actions, different associations have been mobilising for years to fight against planned obsolescence. A unique case is Repair Café, a place where volunteers work together with experts to repair different objects. Also, the Deixalles Foundation in Palma de Mallorca, collects obsolete electronic devices that are then repaired by people in the process of reintegration into the labour market.
And the third way is to reuse. This is the case of Telefónica’s MAIA platform, which aims to promote the reuse of equipment from its telecommunications network among the Group’s operators and with third parties, promoting circularity and offering a second life to these devices. In this way the company tries to ensure that its waste, instead of ending up in landfill, is transformed into raw materials that are reintroduced into the value chain.In addition to all these options, there is one more: alargascencia, a project promoted by the NGO Friends of the Earth, the project comprises a network of more than 1,000 second-hand shops where electronic goods can be repaired, rented and exchanged. This initiative aims to extend the lifetime of electronic products to avoid unnecessary replacement.