Programmed Obsolescence: The Ever Shorter Life of our Devices

 Programmed Obsolescence: The Ever Shorter Life of our Devices

Programmed obsolescence is something we all know, consciously or unconsciously. It affects the durability of our technological devices and it thus has a considerable economic weight on our personal budgets. What we are less used to considering is its consequences and the way to contain the phenomenon.

By Belén López Mensaque | AJIN Argentina

Electronic waste is one of the fastest-growing waste products in the world: it is estimated that by 2025, 53.9 million tons of it will be generated per year. It is equivalent to the weight of 145 Empire State Buildings. These data come from the International Recycling Bureau. Greenpeace adds that many of the hundreds materials of which electrical and electronic devices are made are toxic: when discarded, they can pollute the environment and affect people’s health. Why are so many devices discarded? How can we change this situation and the consequences it generates? The answer may lie in what is known as programmed obsolescence, and in the organizations that are working to combat it.

Programmed obsolescence means that products are designed to stop working after a certain time. Their failure is not inevitable at all. Rather, it is intentionally caused by the manufacturers. The Spanish documentary “Buy, Throw Away, Buy” provides fact-based evidence of how this obsolescence was born in the 20th century. According to the film’s research, it was the light bulb manufacturers who “invented” it to purposely reduce the life of light bulbs, which went from lasting 2.500 hours to only 1.000 hours.

 A summary of the documentary “Buy, Throw Away, Buy” can be seen in this video published by El País.

“It also happens that you buy an appliance, something breaks and it is cheaper to buy a new one than to repair it. That is also programmed obsolescence”, says Belén Macchi of Fundación Equidad, an organization which recycles unused computers and donates them to people who cannot afford one. 

The e-commerce and technology consultant Hipólito Giménez Blanco completes the picture by noticing that a few years ago many electronic devices could be disassembled and repaired more easily than today. The most tangible example is that of smartphones: years ago, if the battery failed, users could buy one and replace the old one on their own; today, most cell phones cannot be opened, let alone repaired by an ordinary user.

A recent case: Apple will pay 3.4 million dollars to Chilean consumers for programmed obsolescence. In April of this year, the technology giant agreed to compensate at least 150 thousand Chilean users who denounced the company for programmed obsolescence in some models of its iconic iPhone. The class-action lawsuit pointed out that the smartphones started to run slower after certain software updates. Apple had already admitted in 2017 that it slowed down devices as batteries became old and decreased in performance, so that they would consume less power and last longer. Consumers, on the contrary, stated that this was done to force them to buy new equipment.

This case had a favorable outcome for consumers, but it is not always easy to establish whether or not there was planned obsolescence. “Technology is becoming increasingly complex and sometimes it is difficult to determine whether behind a company’s action there is a deliberate intention to shorten the useful life of a product or whether it is a technological advance, which makes it obsolete” explain lawyers Agustin Grimaut and Gastón Salort of GS Digital, a firm that advises technology-based companies.

Although this is the first case in Latin America, Apple had already faced this type of lawsuit in the past in the United States, France and Italy. In 2020, the company undertook to pay up to 500 million dollars to U.S. consumers for programmed obsolescence again in iPhones.

The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated digitization in many sectors around the world. Faced with the restrictions imposed by governments, many workers had to adapt to home office while students had to get used to virtual classes: both events increased the purchase of computers and smartphones. In Argentina, for example, the sale of certain computers increased by up to 400% during the 2020 quarantine.

Despite their growing diffusion, only 15% of electronic waste is recycled globally. Specifically, in Latin America and the Caribbean, the recycling sector is not fully developed by governments. And it is estimated that the region generates 7 kilograms of electronic waste per capita per year, in contrast with a global average of 6 kilograms, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), GSMA (an organization of mobile operators worldwide), and the South Pole. 

“Electrical and electronic devices are a complex mixture of hundreds of materials (a cell phone has between 500 and 1,000 different components), contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, hazardous chemicals and PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a highly toxic type of plastic” states Greenpeace. If this waste ends up in landfills or dumps, it begins to decompose, generating liquids and gases that pollute the environment and human health, the organization says. And if these liquids end up in watercourses, they will spread all through the environment.

Simplified composition of a cell phone. Source: GSMA

Recycling may be one of the ways to reduce electronic waste, but it does not solve the underlying problem. As Belén Macchi argues, “planned obsolescence is already happening and will continue to happen. What we can demand is that things are manufactured with materials that can be recycled”. And that recycling costs are kept in check. In fact, most times, the collection and separation costs in recycling processes are greater than the income obtained from the recovered materials, according to the IDB report. This can (and does) represent an economic obstacle on the way of those companies prone to recycling. 

The technology companies themselves attempted other solutions but were unsuccessful. “There were different proposals at a global level to make things with disassembled components and they never prospered, due to lack of support, or because they did not achieve results, or because it is not business”, explains Giménez Blanco. One of these was “Ara”, Google’s plan to manufacture modular cell phones with interchangeable parts, so that users could add functions to their devices and renew the parts that stopped working. This would have extended the useful life of the phones, but in 2016 Google announced that it was not going to continue with the project.

On the other hand, some countries already have specific legislation on the subject. Since 2016, Chile has had a law for waste management, extended producer responsibility and promotion of recycling: among other things, it aims at making producers responsible for collecting and recycling the materials used in the manufacturing of their goods. Although a law of this type is a great step forward, specialists stress that it may be difficult to apply in the region. “I believe that in Latin America what happens is that the urgent matters do not allow us to deal with the important ones. Companies still don’t know how they are going to pay taxes, and we are asking them to regulate and control the circuit from the time they buy the raw material to the waste that is generated,” says Agustín Grimaut.

Although regulations of this type can be positive from an environmental point of view, they can also generate negative effects on national economies. “I allow myself to distrust the true scope that the legislation may have. It is rare that an industry has been changed by a law” states Gastón Salort. “The only thing they are going to achieve (with laws like the one in Chile) is that within a week the companies will be emptying and moving to Africa, China or a Latin American country that does not have those regulations”, he adds. Grimaut also claims that if there is no consensus at least from the big technology companies that set the trend (Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi), it is very difficult to take effective measures against programmed obsolescence.

However, Jessica Giménez (Director in Mexico of Sustainability Advisory of the auditing firm KPMG) states that “a conscious citizenry that demands companies to have more sustainable practices with product development can change the scenario of planned obsolescence of large companies”. Nowadays, alternative forms of communication help consumers to connect to file class-action lawsuits, something that was unthinkable years ago. This was the case of the Chilean iPhone users against Apple. “Technology brings with it many problems, but it also brings the solution for claims. Because it makes that in class actions, claims are much more vocal, as they are much bigger, and they are much bigger because communication is much easier,” says Grimaut. He concludes that a single case of a class action probably means nothing to the big tech companies, but if multiple lawsuits start popping up in different countries, it becomes more and more cumbersome for them to navigate the global force of consumers.

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