How companies keep us buying new stuff, and how to recycle the rest
By Jeff Foster
When was the last time a broken DVD player lead to a trip to the repair shop? If you can even find a repair shop near you, the odds are good the cost to fix your DVD player will be more than the price of a new one. The reality is we don’t fix electronics anymore, we replace them.
Post-Xmas is when most old gear gets tossed, feeding what experts call a growing throw-away electronics culture. While tech company’s benefit from shorter products lifecycles by encouraging the sale of replacement gear, the byproduct can be harmful to household budgets and the planet.
Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition in San Francisco, says the drive for smaller thinner products with increasingly harder to replace components, is partly to blame. But also, companies making delicate electronics with short warranty periods are pushing people to trash their digital gear, not fix it.
“It’s almost always cheaper to buy a new printer than to fix the old one, if you can even find a place to make the repairs,” Kyle says. The end result is electronics – that contain toxic substances, including lead, nickel, cadmium, mercury, brominated ﬂame retardants – ending up in landfills around the world. The environmental group called E-Stewards estimates only 11 to 14 percent of e-waste is sent to recyclers — the rest ends up in landfills or is burned resulting in soil, water, and air pollution.
To find a list of places to recycle your old tech gear near you, find free recycle-by-mail programs, or how to easily sell your used gear online, skip to the end of this article.
Hard to fix gadget trend
“We are seeing more (electronics) parts being glued into place, like the touchscreens on many smartphones, or the batteries on ultra-thin notebooks,” says Kyle. For example, Apple was criticized by some earlier this year for gluing its lithium polymer battery cells directly to the aluminum unibody shell of the Retina MacBook Pro in order to reduce its size. Teardown site iFixit blasted Apple saying the design made repairs nearly impossible and battery replacements would cost 54 percent more than other MacBooks. While some recyclers said the glued-in battery made it harder to recycle, other recyclers disagreed.
When it comes to tablet and smartphone owners, according to Best Buy Geek Squad agent Derek Meister, these gadget owners are more likely to buy new gear rather than mess with a repair. “Our most common requested repair for tablets and smartphones is cracked screens and battery replacements,” he says. But when it comes to actually fixing gear, if the warranty or service plan has expired, consumers just upgrade, says Meister.
Kyle calls this type of product manufacturing, that make product repairs costly “designing for the dump.”
The cost to repair the original Kindle Fire’s screen is $110, at the repair service site IFixYouri.com, compared to the $160 price tag of a new Kindle Fire from Amazon. IFixYouri charges $280 to repair an Samsung Glalaxy Tab 10.1’s glass and LCD screen, and the same model costs $350 new at Best Buy.
Gear to garbage in record time
Experts like Kyle say inexpensive gadgets are increasingly showing up in discount, grocery, and drug stores at prices people can’t resist. “It’s a printer for $22 or a $30 camcorder, how can I pass that up?” Kyle says when electronics are priced to be impulse buys too often gadgets don’t meet consumer expectations, or break, and end up in the trash. (See related: What’s cheaper: Replacement ink, or a new printer?)
Instead of mindless buying and chucking, people should have greater reverence for stuff, believes Annie Leonard, founder of The Story of Stuff Project, a consumer awareness campaign promoting sensible gadget consumption. In Leonard’s 2010 Story of Electronics video, she points to a possible solution where manufacturers shoulder the responsibility for recycling their gear in an environmentally responsible way.
” Making companies deal with their e-waste is called Extended Producer Responsibility or Product Takeback. If all these old gadgets were their problem, it would be cheaper for them to just design longer lasting, less toxic, and more recyclable products in the first place. They could even make them modular, so that when one part broke, they could just send us a new piece, instead of taking back the whole broken mess. ”
There is no federal legislation pending to establish a federal e-waste take back program by consumer electronics companies, however 25 states have passed legislation mandating statewide e-waste recycling, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.
Manufacturers own the problem and solution
The consumer electronics industry has stepped up its efforts. Through the trade association CEA, a number of industry-wide initiatives have been kicked off. As part of the CEA’s eCycling push, manufacturers such as Apple have vowed to build greener products starting at the design stage when it says, “we create compact, efficient products that require less material to produce.” CEA has also be begun an aggressive recycling campaign with a goal to collect 1 billion pounds of e-waste annually by 2016. Greenpeace estimates up to 50 billion pounds of of e-waste is created each year ( PDF).
To help consumers buy gear that is environmentally sound, Greenpeace created a ranking system for consumer electronics companies. It ranks companies based on criteria that looks at things such as if they use a certified recycling partners, whether or not they sell products that are free from hazardous substances and the extent to which they consider durability, streamlining of devices, re-usability and ease of repair.
According to Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics , HP was the greenest on the list last year, followed by Dell, Nokia and Apple. On the other end of the spectrum, the environmental group determined that RIM, Toshiba and LG are not as environmentally conscious as they could be.
Companies combat waste
To combat the problem many big tech brands offer local drop off centers for old electronics, free shipping labels to send old tech gear back for recycling, and offer coupons for discounts on future purchases when consumers recycle. Here are links to recycling programs run by PC makers and consumer electronics companies:
If you still are stuck trying to figure out where to recycle your gear the Environmental Protection Agency runs an electronics donation and recycling site that offers links to resources. The CEA, the consumer electronics trade association, also links to recyclers through it Green Gadgets website.
If your device still works, why not sell it? Plenty of websites buy used equipment or offer trade-up programs, including Amazon, Best Buy, BuyMyTronics, eBay, Ecosquid, Gazelle, and Glyde. And of course, there’s always Craigslist.