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Are Manufacturers or Consumers Responsible for a Lack of Interest in Greener Gadgets?

Leon Kaye | Wednesday July 14th, 2010 | 0 Comments

Electronic devices from iPods to cell phones—do any other such gadgets exist now?—are getting smaller, smarter, cheaper, and more ubiquitous.  Washing machines defy this law of physics—they seem to get more colorful and rotund.  One result of all this gadgetry, of course, is the buildup of more toxins and of course, e-waste.  Companies are responding to this growing concern:  manufacturers are phasing out more toxic chemicals, packaging is shrinking, and better e-waste recycling programs are in the works.

But when the latest and greatest electronic gadget is released, we never hear about any redeeming environmental or energy saving features.  After all, when the Modern Family character Phil Dunfy badgered his poor wife to queue at the mall at 5:00 a.m. the morning of the iPad’s release, he blubbered about its Cnet rating and its wondrous features, not the amount of energy saved or battery life.  I know, we are talking about people who do not exist, but you get the point.  One United Kingdom agency is trying to reframe how consumers view electronics and what companies can do to fit environmental responsibility into their branding efforts.

WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) has researched consumer behavior and released a report admonishing electronics manufacturers to push their customers to make “greener choices.”  Their findings are not really surprising.  Whether purchasing a Nano or a barge-sized flat screen television, features and performance rule.  Energy savings and durability, however, have little role in the purchase decision.

Many reasons lurk behind this mentality.  Consumers may show interest in rebate programs that reward energy-efficient programs, but these offers are often onerous; it’s almost absurd to mail in receipts and documents when email and encryption can make that process easier.  We also judge quality by app features and speed, and hence are persuaded by those alluring marketing messages.  No advertisement features the cool guy in sunglasses cooing over the repurposed plastic or postage-paid envelope in which you can ship your old unwanted device.

But focusing on recycling content, or e-waste recycling programs, misses a larger point.  I may be aging myself here, but as a kid of the 1970s, when your TV or stereo (you know, the coffin-sized monstrosity in your living room that doubled as a credenza) fizzled out, you called the repairman and made the house call, unless your father doubled as the neighborhood handyman.  Those appliances would remain in the household longer than most children.  Electronics were expensive and were built to last.  Now they are smaller and can just be tossed.  Sure, if you look around you may find a local shop that can repair that digital camera or swap out that iPod battery cheaply, but chances are you may have to drive across town—the neighborhood repair shop just does not exist anymore.

Finally, why isn’t there increased standardization of electronic components?  Our household is an outlier: our cell phones last about two years, well above the average lifespan of six months.  Eventually that phone will die off, but we still have a storage box filled with a spaghetti-bowl like mess of old electronic cell phone chargers.  The chargers never stop working—why not move towards a standard recharging gizmo?

While we sort out these tough questions, WRAP is working with companies such as Samsung to raise consumer awareness of more responsible electronic goods.  Some may say that will just not be possible.  All I can say is that I remember a few years back when I finally gave up on my dented LG 9-key clamshell phone.  I asked the chap at the store if he would recycle my phone, and recoiled in horror when he said he would just pitch it.  I found a recycling mailer instead—and of course I cringe when I think it may have been dissembled or incinerated at some awful far-off place.  I think we can do better.


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