Planned obsolescence plus mass consumption equals full landfills

Kudos to vendors that are taking action, but much more can be done

By Hailey Eisen
May 13, 2011

Apple announces the iPad 2 and immediately original iPads land on virtual chopping blocks. Who wants the crummy original when there is a shiny upgrade for sale? It’s called planned obsolescence and it’s not unique to Apple. All industry players rely on the relentless upgrade cycle to power profits, as slightly older but still useful products are sent to landfills when owners pursue the latest and greatest. “Even [with] the most energy-efficient, toxin-free, closed-loop recycled product, buying a new model every year has implicit environmental costs,” said Greenpeace IT analyst Casey Harrell. “Ultimately, we must question how much we need. Are an iPad, an iPod, an iPhone and a MacBook all really necessary?”

Or, more to the point, are the latest versions necessary? “When we first came into this sector, we were fighting with the industry around the efficacy of the issues we were raising,” Harrell said. “But now we’re mainly focusing on the speed of change, not direction.

“What you usually do not find in the IT sector is straight-out lying. But what we do have is an issue of obfuscation—in the sense that companies will say look over here, we are doing such a great job on X, but holistically the company’s environmental efforts may not be as impressive.”

There are some companies, however, whose green performance is garnering the attention of Greenpeace and others. With a focus on sustainability and corporate social responsibility, they are making changes to product design, manufacturing processes and recycling programs. Backbone asked Greenpeace to outline four factors consumers and businesses should consider when making purchasing decisions, and we asked some of the industry’s larger players to provide some input on the operations.

Cleaner products

Many electronics are made with dangerous and toxic substances including arsenic, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), mercury, phthalates and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They are expelled from factories during production and released from products during use, resulting in pollution and health risks. At end-of-life, these toxic substances make safe recycling impossible and contribute to e-waste. The elimination of toxins has consequently been high on the Greenpeace agenda for nearly five years. “Our goal is to reframe the issue and have companies realize the economic incentive of getting their products back at end-of-life through responsible recycling, rather than continuing to mine virgin materials,” Harrell said. “By shifting this to an issue of economics rather than e-waste legislation, we have been able to get more brands on-board.”

In 2008, Apple was the first company to eliminate toxic PVC and BFRs from its entire offering, raising the bar for competitors. According to Greenpeace, Sony Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung lead the way in the mobile space, with all phones now toxin-free. And Philips was the first (and currently only) company to introduce a PVC- and BFR-free television, the Econova LED TV, in 2010.

In early 2011, Lenovo announced that its ThinkPad T420 was first to earn a gold rating in the laptop category from UL Environment, an organization focused on green products. The ThinkPad earned the Sustainable Product Certification (SPC) designation. Criteria include “the elimination or reduction of certain hazardous substances that pose threats to human health and the environment.” Among other steps, Lenovo eliminated the mercury-containing compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) used to light the notebook’s display and switched to LED backlighting, an approach now being adopted by others.

According to Sony’s Web site, “the elimination of environmentally high-risk substances, PVCs and BFRs in specific applications” is a target for 2015. Greenpeace indicates that the company currently has a VAIO PC as well as video recorders, music players and digital cameras that are partially toxin-free.

And in 2010, HP launched the first PVC-free printer, the HP ENVY 100 e-All-in-One. “We are constantly reviewing everything that goes into our products,” said HP’s director of environmental programs Frances Edmonds. “We exercise a precautionary principle so if there is thought to be a problem with a compound we’re using, we won’t switch to something else until it’s proven to be safer.”

This means at least some vendors are making progress. “These toxic substances can and continue to be eliminated and replaced,” Harrell said. “What is required of these companies—and this is not unique to the IT sector—is reeducation and understanding that being green isn’t just doing what’s required by law, but rather taking precaution to say ‘We don’t want our goods to cause harm.’”

Greener product development

Sony sets out its sustainability efforts in its Road to Zero campaign, which commits to eliminating its environmental footprint by 2050, with concrete targets in five-year increments. “The energy consumption of a product has the biggest impact on the environment,” said Nick Aubry, environmental manager with Sony Canada. The company’s goal is to reduce the annual energy consumption of products by 30 per cent by 2015. “We have TVs equipped with presence sensors that detect when you’ve left the room and will automatically shut off the picture and then power down completely,” Aubry said, and a switch on a number of Sony TVs also eliminates all standby power consumption.

Lenovo incorporates post-consumer recycled content (PCC) and post-industrial recycled content (PIC) into engineered plastic resins that are used to manufacture notebooks and desktops. “Using these engineered plastics saves the natural resources and energy that would have gone to manufacture new plastics and diverts an equal amount of PCC and PIC from landfills,” said Stefan Bockhop, director of channel sales for Lenovo Canada.

Since 2005, Lenovo has used more than 61 million pounds (gross) of plastic materials containing PCC and/or PIC in its products.

Sustainable operations

“Every sustainability issue is dwarfed when you compare it to climate change,” Harrell said. “So every energy issue—from embedded energy to energy use—is significant.” Because of the long supply chains involved in the manufacturing process of electronics, sustainable operations must involve informed procurement and supply chain management.

“One of the first steps in our environmental life-cycle analysis is to evaluate suppliers and determine their environmental impact,” said Chantale Mantha, environmental specialist with Toshiba Canada. And Toshiba looks to its own operations as well. For example, it purifies all wastewater used in its manufacturing processes before returning it to the environment. At its Yokohama Complex in Japan, a pond has been constructed as part of a drainage canal for treated wastewater discharged from factories. Known as “the lagoon,” it is home to biological habitats including endangered species of insects and rare plants. “This program demonstrates our commitment to biodiversity and ensures that all water we release into the public is clean and safe,” Mantha said.

Better take back and recycling

Because of planned obsolescence, end-of-life recycling programs are vital to the technology sector. The inappropriate disposal of e-waste is a global environmental concern.

HP implemented Planet Partners, a take-back and recycling program for ink and LaserJet cartridges. In 2005 it began using reclaimed cartridge plastic—polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—in the production of new ink cartridges, creating a closed-loop recycling process. “We have put 1 billion cartridges through this program,” Edmonds said, adding that the use of recycled plastic in manufacturing new cartridges has resulted in “a 33 per cent smaller carbon footprint, 89 per cent lower water use, and 62 per cent lower fossil fuel depletion.”

HP also offers free take-back and recycling of all signage printed on its commercial equipment. “Twenty years ago people said we’d be running paperless offices, but print is still playing an important role in communications,” Edmonds said. “We are pushing for more efficient printing practices.”

Many companies are also reevaluating product design with end-of-life in mind. This means manufacturing with recyclable materials (such as LED backlighting instead of mercury-containing CFLs) and making products easier to disassemble for recycling.

For enterprise clients, Lenovo offers an asset recovery solution that “actually pays back clients as they move products into end-of-life, because there is often an opportunity for the components that make up the device or the device itself to be refurbished and used in parts of the world where demands on technology are lower,” Bockhop said. “And we’re committed to ensuring that products with no further use are broken down and diverted to recycling programs.”

Recycling can also promote sustainability by ensuring a manufacturer has a continuous supply of otherwise scarce resources. Sony has invested in recovering and recycling rechargeable lithium ion batteries through its Call2Recycle program. These batteries, captured from notebooks and cameras, are sent to Xstrata, a smelter in Sudbury, Ontario and Sony buys all its cobalt for new batteries from Xstrata. “You can’t just blindly make products and consume resources endlessly or else eventually everything will be depleted and you’ll be out of business,” Aubry said. “This is all part of responsible and sustainable resource management.”

Ask people involved in the electronics sector about coltan and they know all about it. Ask what their companies are doing to combat the illicit mining of this mineral in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and you might not get too far.


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