Zero Waste Gadgets
Eliminating, substituting and/or reducing our waste from the never-ending obsession around the latest gadgets that we can't live without.
In my teens, my gift requests saw a pronounced shift from toys to gadgets - it started with a cell phone (the ever reliable and indestructible NOKIA, woot woot!), and progressed to digital cameras and mp3 players and laptops. These were often granted to me after a particular achievement (getting good grades, getting into college, getting a scholarship, the occasional birthday treats, etc).
When I started earning my own money, I no longer had to wait for the gift fairies to show up - I could now buy whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it! With that came a slew of iPods and iPhones and iPads and DSLRs and laptops (and associated accessories) that paraded their way in and out of my life.
And parade they did, sometimes in very quick succession, quickly getting thrown out whenever a newer, shinier version appeared in the market. I wasn’t the only one doing this though - plenty of others do the same. In fact, millions of others do the same, leading us merrily into…
A Major e-Waste Problem
Electronics are unfortunately packed with toxic chemicals: lead, arsenic, poly-brominated flame retardants, etc. When they end up in landfills, the toxic metals don’t just sit pretty, they actually leach out into the environment. Now imagine 20 million tons of that stuff being thrown away annually, and being shipped to poor countries so rich countries can pretend it didn’t happen, and you get this:
The town of Guiyu, China, one of many places that get dumped with our e-waste
Whether or not the above is your backyard, there is no denying that the amount of e-waste is growing while our capability to handle all that waste safely isn’t keeping pace.
(Alas, for Malaysians, this will become our backyard now that China and India have intelligently decided to stop the inflow of this nonsense into their countries. "After China ban, e-waste rains on Malaysian soil" - FMT)
We’re not the only ones to blame though - companies nowadays are incentivised to ensure that their products break down or become useless after a certain number of years. When my iPad tells me, just after a software update, that 75% of the apps can no longer work on my device, I have no choice but to go buy the latest iPad. More sales, more profit.
Gone are the days in which things were built to last. Now, the faster they can make your perfectly functional device obsolete, the better for their pockets (but not so much yours!) (or the planet, for that matter).
[For an excellent introduction to the issue of planned obsolescence, watch The Light Bulb Conspiracy]
[While you're at it, why not watch The Story of Electronics too]
With this giant conspiracy against you, working to make you buy and dispose electronic gadgets at an alarming rate, what can you do?
Reduce the number of gadgets you use
The first step is take stock of which gadgets you actually need in your life, and which are there purely out of impulse with no particular value to add. As much as possible, minimise the amount of gadgets you use - this will not only be good for your wallet, but also for your relationships and your eyesight. If you want, you can also embrace the analog life and delve into the wonderful world of actual paper, actual notebooks and actual pen (with actual ink!).
The less gadgets you purchase, the less you will end up throwing out.
Don’t fall prey to trends
The companies will constantly be coming at you with ‘improved’ versions of (essentially the same) products (but now in four colours or sizes, instead of two!).
There's always one coming. Don't let them get you.
Avoid falling for that trap and the frenzy that it creates - upgrade only if your current device is broken, dysfunctional or on its deathbed, not because of a fractional improvement in the screen megapixel count, which on a screen size that small isn’t all that noticeable anyway.
Buy used or refurbished
When purchasing a device, consider buying a used or refurbished one. These are often cheaper and just as good as new, and puts back into circulation what would otherwise end up in a dumpsite.
Repair instead of dumping
If it’s broken, fix it, don’t trash it. There are plenty of third-party services that can bring your broken devices back to life (even for notorious Apple products that are designed to not be repairable). Cracked screens, dying batteries, glitchy keyboards, crackling speakers - all can be repaired without throwing out the entire thing. My own laptop is a decade old, and has seen multiple hard drive and battery swaps, and it still functions beautifully.
Nowadays, an awesome trend known as 'Repair Cafe' is popping up, and Kuala Lumpur has its own repair movement: KakiRepair. Check out their upcoming events and bring your broken stuff with you.
Donate the ones you don’t use
When the time comes for you to part with your device, consider donating or finding a new owner if it is still functional. While the device may no longer be useful to you (especially compared to the more powerful version that has just come on the market), somebody out there could definitely use it for lower-spec purposes that the device is perfect for. Extend the life of your device by giving it a chance with somebody else.
Send for recycling if applicable
If unable to find a new owner for your device, do search for recycling centres near you that can and will accept your e-waste. A quick Google search will yield results and point you in the right direction.
If all of the above does not work for you, then do your best to dispose your electronics responsible and safely. Remember all the toxic stuff that's nestled inside them! Before chucking it into the nearest trash can, inquire with your local waste management authority to see if they have regulations and solutions for your e-waste.
For Malaysians, do refer to the website of the Department of Environment Malaysia.
Make the companies take responsibility
Rather than shouldering the responsibility all by yourself as a consumer, let’s push some of that to the ones who are designing and creating these electronic devices. Write to the companies that develop and sell the gadgets you love and let them know that you, as a loyal consumer of their products, would like to see better designs that:
utilises safe and non-toxic materials that can easily be retrieved for recycling at the end of the product’s life
allows for the devices to be easily repairable if one of the components break down, instead of having to replace the whole thing entirely
are of high quality, can last long and are not made to be obsolete within a couple of years
Even better, fight for Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP) to be established in your area, in which producers and sellers of products are obliged to put in place a recycling or reusing program to manage the waste coming from their products after sales.
Here's a sample letter that you can copy, paste and modify to suit your needs.
What an Extended Producer Responsibility would look like when implemented
RATE YOURSELF: ELECTRONICS
Achievement Award: Take the minimalist approach - reduce the amount of gadgets you use and avoid unnecessary upgrades for no valid reason.
Points For Effort: Buy used or refurbished, and if disposing, do so in the best, most responsible way. Donate or recycle when possible.
Um, Maybe Not: You’re a techie and an early adopter and definitely, completely, totally must get your hands on all the latest gadgets? That’s okay, continue as you do, and find some other waste to eliminate! Check out other recommendations here.