The Dirty Toxic Secret Behind Our Disposable Gadgets

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No piece of electronics lasts forever, craftsmanship aside. But it might be the case that some devices we buy are meant for an early grave—so we can upgrade. And who pays the price? Maybe, the entire planet does.

The Story of Stuff Project wants you to think harder about what you buy, why it dies, and where the aluminum and matte black plastic corpses end up. The project's main argument is that you, as consumers, are being duped. The stuff you buy isn't meant to last—because then you wouldn't buy new stuff. Rather, through a clever mix of marketing and design, that laptop you bought last year doesn't look so appealing. Maybe it's because, as happened to me a few years ago, it simply began to break down, component by component, until it made more sense to buy a new one than to go through the hassle (and high price) of repairs. And then—and this is the crux of the group's newest film—these gadgets wind up in the trash. The toxic processes that were used to create them are joined, full circle, with the toxic deposit of these substances in the ground, water, or someone's body.


This might sound like a conspiracy theory, but reflect on your gadget collection. On my desk right now is an old iPod with a broken hard drive (it cost almost as much to repair as to buy a newer model), old computer speakers that have given way to mammoth new towers in my living room, and, right in front of my nose, a two year old laptop that is putting up with the adoring looks I give newer models.


So what's the solution? More importantly—what's the problem? The Story of Stuff Project is right in that manufacturers bank on us wanting to buy newer things, ad infinitum—otherwise they'd be out of business after the first generation. But it must be conceded that sometimes we buy new things because they're really great. Tell me I am a consumer automaton for owning a smartphone, and I will point you to the quaint Nokia I used in high school. Some might call it waste—I call it progress. But my HDTV? Two years old, and as beautiful as the day I bought it—despite the siren's call of hotter specs. Neither camp is entirely wrong, and a balance needs to be struck between buying for the sake of buying, and buying for the sake of living better through technology. Replacing your phone because having Google Maps in your pocket will change your life makes sense. Replacing your phone because you can't swap in a battery that lasts for more than 30 minutes is an outrage.

The SOSP says it will take a commitment from designers to build products produced sans toxins, and built to last, to get us out of the "designed for the dump" loop. Their solution, that governments mandate "takeback laws" to manufacturers, making them ultimately responsible for handling safe disposable of stuff they created, sounds good to me. But SOSP needs to grant that, as much as planned obsolescence is sinister, and reams our planet for the sake of the economy, sometimes a new gadget is genuinely a better gadget. [The Story of Stuff via Core77]