An ongoing project across the European Union aims to address planned obsolescence as it is generally viewed as damaging to consumers. However, the environmental value of creating electronic devices that are designed to degenerate in various ways has complicated the debate.
Planned obsolescence refers to a manufacturer’s decision to make a device designed to slow down, break, need repair, and generally need replacement within a specific period of time. It has garnered public attention with regards to smartphones, primarily. Think of the grumbling over Apple iPhones that break down over time, which has led to conspiracy theories about the link between planned breakdowns and device releases.
It’s important to note here that there is no proof in the form of studies or research that obsolescence of devices is indeed planned. There are, however, facts about engineering and manufacturing devices that point to obsolescence as an inevitable end for electronics. A Reddit post shows a host of engineers explaining that multiple factors go into creating a device; it is unlikely that one whole element of designing a product is dedicated to making it fail at a certain time. The reality is that pieces of devices have lifespans.
Additionally, most in device development point out that a huge factor in device obsolescence is the nature of consumer electronics to go out of style.
Some companies look to be challenging this idea; the modular smartphone is one product that both small and large tech companies are hoping to bring to market in order to appeal to users who are dissatisfied with what looks like planned obsolescence in other popular devices. Phones with replaceable parts look like a solution to having to toss an entire device once one aspect like the battery craps out.
This year, an initiative in France targets appliance planned obsolescence. France launched a decree in March that applies to French manufacturers who are now required to tell consumers how long their appliances are intended to last. They also have to notify buyers about the period of time that spare parts will be available for each product after its release date. Beginning in 2016, manufacturers are required to repair or replace, free of charge, any defective product within two years from its original purchase date. The E.U.’s Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment Directive has been in place for over a decade, and gives member states flexibility with implementing regulations concerning appliance manufacturers. Over the last couple of years, concern has grown over the environmental impact of tossing electronics — possibly unnecessarily so.
Molly Heskitt, senior director of global electronics and consumer goods at Altair, wrote in the EE Times: “…the constant shedding of older technology places a considerable strain on the environment, through the accumulation of solid waste and the potential introduction of harmful materials into the landscape. If environmental concerns become more prominent, as consumers, we may want to pause and ask ourselves if that next upgrade is truly a step up in functionality, or simply the next fleeting trend.”
France seems sold on the existence of planned obsolescence. While the jury is still out on whether or not tech companies are planning the end-life of devices on purpose to make more money, everyone is pretty much agreed that tossing millions of iPhones into landfills isn’t a good thing.