Not Another Gloomy Blog about the Wasteful Holidays

Give the gift of Extended Producer Responsibility. We'll all be happy you did.

Posted Dec 23, 2012

We would love to tell you how to make these high-wattage, gift-giving holidays environmentally friendly, with a call to action based on a compelling moral argument that appeals to your deep green ecological ethics. But we’re no fools.

The annual jolly season is probably the worst time to question the norm of hyper-consumption that defines the society we live in. And besides, you’ll know you overdid it when you’re standing in a pile of ripped up wrapping paper and plastic packaging, throwing old (recyclable of course) batteries into the trash bin, and reading your December electricity bill. So why rub it in.

But there is another reason to skip the guilt trip. As we’ve pointed out in previous posts, too often the consumer is blamed for bad environmental behavior when the responsibility rightly belongs to the makers and distributors of the goodies we buy for each other this time of year.

The heart of the problem is the business strategy known as planned obsolescence, which is the conscious design of limited lifespans for consumer products.1 Planned obsolescence is a form of marketing intended to speed up the rate at which we replace our old stuff with new stuff. Media technologies provide some of the best examples to illustrate how this works.

When we buy a new cellphone, tablet, or a computer, we receive warranties for a prescribed amount of time the manufacturer is willing to vouch for the devices. One can pay more for an extended warranty, but even then the manufacturers won’t bet on the gadgets lasting more than three years.

Of course, many of these items do have a relatively long life, but none that rival more robust consumer goods like refrigerators. And even if they did last, many of us are susceptible to the lure of an upgrade and the peer pressure to own the latest model. Resistance is futile when a new operating system comes out that is incompatible with the hardware you own.2 One way or another, our behavior is being shaped by design.

There are some technical reasons for the short life of cellphones and computers, but these mostly have to do with the way the components are integrated into them so that malfunctioning parts are not easily replaced. By contrast, think of the car battery—when it dies, car owners don’t usually replace the entire car but swap out the dead part for a functioning one. This is not so easy with media technologies, in particular the small, thin models on the market today. Most of us don’t have the skill or knowledge to identify the ailing components and buy and install working replacements.

Unsurprisingly, many economists consider the systematic acceleration of the turnover of these goods a healthy feature of a consumer market—more units sold, more money made, more jobs, more investment, and so on. In this view, the one trillion dollars we will spend on electronics this year is an index of abundance and well-being.

And yet readers of this blog can guess that there is a downside to such abundance, starting with the massive electronic waste created by increasingly rapid cycles of obsolescence and upgrades. Happily, there are ways of mitigating the environmental impact of the short lifespan designed into these gadgets. One method is known as extended producer responsibility (EPR). 

EPR requires producers to take responsibility for end-of-life management of their products. This means that the environmental costs of inefficient and wasteful design stays within the electronics sector rather than being turned into a social cost through environmental harm. The European Union has set up regulation that requires manufacturers of electronics and other media technologies to take back their branded devices and recycle them.

Although costs paid by producers are initially transferred to consumers in the price of equipment, EPR reverses the behavior modification of planned obsolescence so that the makers of the equipment must change their ways rather than count on consumers taking sole responsibility for a greener lifestyle. The burden of handling their own e-waste encourages companies to come up with new designs that will eventually cost less to collect, treat, reuse, and recycle. Similar schemes have been mandated in Switzerland, Norway, the Baltic States, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

The United States has no national legislation of this kind. But because the computer industries are made up of huge multinationals that seek to operate in markets with EPR regulations, some day our electronic gifts could have a greener design.

And consumers can make this happen sooner. If you have one holiday wish left to make, consider calling your representative in Washington to ask that extended producer responsibility become Federal law.



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