Buying for the landfill

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

cobaltWith a great number of products the wear out is pre-programed. This deliberate limited lifespan is called “planned obsolescence”. There are some tech people who actually claim that many electronic devices and also white goods have a chip “implanted” that starts counting down a set time span after the device has begun to be used which shuts it down after that set time. But may that as it be (or not be). Fact is that there appears to be a predestined limited lifespan of our devices in order for the companies to be able to be selling us the same products again, and again, after a short space of time rather than, as used to be the case when products were made to last (almost indefinitely with care) and were repairable, having to bring out better versions or other products, in order to stay in business.

It would appear that the producers of light bulbs decided that the lifespan of the original ones was too long – almost indefinite – and that that would have to change. They seem to have been the first with this lightbulb moment for the capitalists. So they changed the design of the elements and, voila, it would only work for a limited time. In the same vein as when the new owner (a West German capitalist) of once people-owned glass-works in the GDR that made unbreakable (yes, they even had the patent for it) glass he immediately had all the machines removed with the words: “I am not going to make something that does not break.”

As a result of this capitalist model we have the modern “throw away society” because the manufacturers of those products also make it (almost) impossible to open the devices and repair them. That is also part of the plan. And in addition to that they now “sell” us a supposed sustainability of those products – that we have to toss after they no longer work – as they are, so they tell us, fully recyclable.

Whether it is light bulbs, nylon tights, printers, mobile telephones – most of those, and many, many other products, already have their expiry date preplanned. The consumer shall be induced to rather buy a new product than to have the old one repaired. Often, as indicated, this is (almost) impossible and where it is possible to costs can be several times higher than the purchase cost of a new one.

The deliberate foreshortening of the lifespan of an industrial products in order to keep the economy in motion is called “planned obsolescence”. Already in 1928 an advertising magazine wrote candidly: “A product that does not wear out is a tragedy for business.”

In the 1920s a cartel was set up to limit the lifespan of light bulbs and from then on everything went slowly downhill bar for say in the GDR where products were made not to wear out. Why? Because of scarcity of resources and because it was not a capitalist state.

Even after the light bulb story many products were still well-made and repairable, to some extent even by the user in the DIY-mode. Things begun to change after the Second World War. It was here that companies made big money due to military contracts but after those profits began to fall off. Realizing that this was due to the fact that the products they supplied to the military ended up destroyed in action they came up with the idea (no, not of another war, though that was not far behind either) to find ways to limit the lifespan of products other than what would be called “consumables”.

Slowly, however, people in general are getting fed up with this model and are beginning to demand – once again – products that last. The manufacturers, though, are responding rather with the “sustainability” model I mentioned earlier, that is to say the claim that their products are entirely recyclable and thus the consumer does not have to worry about buying new then the previous one breaks as everything goes back into the loop. That is not the point though, is it.

Whether or not the everything in a product is recyclable and even if everything goes back into the loop of making new products the impact on the environment, not to speak of our pocketbooks, is not elevated really. Recycling of electronic goods, and recycling in general, is a dirty business which is why most countries have outsourced it to countries where the environmental codes are lower to non-existent and where there are also no protections for the workers in this industry.

With China now refusing to take much of our recyclables the nations of the so-called West are in a quandary as what to do and are looking – no, not so much at reducing waste and making long-lasting products – to other, poorer countries where they can dump their recyclables.

However, nothing is going to change unless either the political model changes and capitalism is tossed on the landfill itself, the landfill of history, or consumers vote with their feet and wallets. What must become obsolete are not products but the system that created this willful “planned obsolescence” and the idea of infinite perpetual economic growth on a finite Planet with finite resources.

And while we are at limited resources let me, just for a second, touch upon the batteries, the rechargeable Lithium-ion ones, that our devices devour rather also quite often. The rare earths required for this, including cobalt, and others, are not just mined in a way that ravages the Planet and which are polluting, but which also ravage children who work as slaves, often literally, in those mines (and the factories making the batteries). But then, oh well, seems to be the attitude of so many, it is not in our countries and it is far away.

© 2018