Built to break: planned obsolescence
Planned obsolescence, the design of products with a deliberately limited lifespan, drives our economy by encouraging people to buy new things instead of trying to repair the old ones when they break.
"(It's) an advanced strategy of disposability invented by American manufacturers and marketers," said Giles Slade, author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. "(The result is) an entire society on a consumerist treadmill."
Slade's book calls attention to our current unsustainable consumer culture, tracing its origins to the early 20th century. In a system where junked items can be easily recycled, planned obsolescence is simply a part of the cycle of production and consumption, and not a problem.
Unfortunately, it's often associated with environmentally-irresponsible manufacturing and disposal practices. As we buy more new cars, appliances and electronic gadgets made with plastics and heavy metals, old broken ones mostly become hazardous waste.
According to Hadi Dowlatabadi, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute for Global Issues, planned obsolescence cannot be separated from technological progress and value engineering, which involves calculating a product's value based on the ratio of functionality to cost.
"Value engineering recognizes that we can spend more on a product and make it last longer, or make it more disposable but cheaper," he said.
Ideally, the decision to make a product with a short lifespan should be based on a low replacement cost — both financial and environmental — and a resulting new product that functions significantly better than the old one. This doesn't always happen, however.
Slade places the birth of planned obsolescence in 1924, when Phoebus, a cartel of manufacturing companies, allegedly conspired to shorten the lifespan of light bulbs. There are specially- engineered bulbs, such as the Centennial Bulb in Livermore, California, that were first turned on in the early 1900s and are still working today.
Bulbs that need to be replaced every few months were clearly not a technological improvement, but provided a definite economic advantage to companies that sold them. At the same time, it doesn't make sense to mass-manufacture an expensive product that lasts a long time when a cheaper and more environmentally-friendly version could be just around the corner.
"We could make bulbs last 20,000 hours, but that would essentially mean we would have to throw away perfectly-functional lights mid-way through their life if LED lights using five per cent of their energy came along and produced the same amount of light," said Dowlatabadi.
In his view, the life cycle of products needs to be made as efficient as possible, regardless of how long an individual product lasts.
Polartec fleece is Dowlatabadi's example of a wellengineered product that incorporates deterioration into its design. The fleece gradually loses its insulating ability, but because it is 100 per cent recyclable, it supports a whole industry for warm clothing that reuses the same raw materials, producing new clothing in new styles with very little environmental impact.
Slade has a generally positive view of technological innovation.
"Every generation of technology is more powerful than the previous one, or better suited to its function," he said. "Engineers learn by making more."
However, he said that in its current state, our electronics industry is highly inefficient, as new models of consumer goods use up more of the earth's natural resources and leave consumers to deal with another pile of prematurely obsolete machines that are extremely difficult to recycle safely.
"It ain't gonna last," said Slade. "In fact, it's ending now."
He sees the recent American housing meltdown as the beginning of a much larger global financial and environmental crisis. He estimates the next 10 to 20 years will be rocky, but his predictions were not all doom and gloom.
"Generally crises are the time when people make large adjustments ... what we need is that kind of consciousness that comes from limited resources," he said.
"I think we're at the beginning of a great transition."