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See Inside May 2011

Gadgets Are Garbage—So Here's How to Keep Them Out of the Landfill

Your brand-new device is about to be obsolete. Save it from the trash heap



Illustration by John Hersey

Every now and then the public rises up to make an industry clean up its environmental act. As a result, car companies now offer hybrids, electrics and alternative-fuel cars. Beverage companies are making their bottles with a lot less plastic. New laws have reduced the chemicals that cause acid rain by 76 percent since 1980. And so on.

One industry in particular, however, continues to leave a disastrous eco-wake, because no such public pressure exists: consumer electronics.

You know those one billion cell phones we buy every year? Those 100 million cameras? That infinitude of laptops, Game Boys, TV sets and music players? Most of the ones we replace go to the dump. The Environmental Protection Agency calculated that in 2007, we threw away 2.25 million tons of electronics—82 percent of it into the landfill. That’s a lot of toxic chemicals and nasty metals that you really, really don’t want leaching into the water supply.

So where’s the public outcry? Where are the public service announcements, the lobbyists, the national consciousness-raising? It doesn’t exist, for one simple reason: the disposability at the heart of the industry’s business model is too attractive to all concerned.

It’s fairly easy to give away or sell your old car, clothing, baby gear or furniture; those things may still have value after you finish with them. But electronics? Not so much. Who would want your four-year-old cell phone, your black-and-white iPod, your two-megapixel camera?

Verizon’s free-phone-upgrade program was called New Every Two. That program recently ended, but it is a good-enough description of our national obsession with owning the coolest and newest electronics. Most people would start to feel self-conscious wielding a three-year-old phone, camera, music player or laptop. They observe that the latest gadgets are sleeker, faster and cooler-looking. And presto: it’s time to upgrade.

That is the industry’s business model, and it works spectacularly well. Neither we nor the manufacturers have any incentive to change. They’re not going to try to sell fewer products, and we wouldn’t want them to. Will there ever be a rally where people chant, “Stop improving the gadgets” and “Slow down the pace of progress”?

Apple does that. Its environmental report-card page (www.apple.com/environment/reports) tracks the greenhouse impact of every product not just while you own it but even during its manufacture and recycling. Apple also touts its compact packaging, recycling-valuable materials (such as aluminum) and nontoxic chemicals. There is no reason other com­panies’ environmental practices can’t be sales points, too.

Second, we consumers should recycle our gadgets when we finish with them. If the gizmos are fairly new, you can sell them—either on eBay or to “re­com­merce” sites such as Gazelle.com. They send you a shipping box for your old gear, pay you for it, and then resell or recycle it.

If your junk is too old to resell, you can drop it off at Best Buy, Target or Radio Shack. All three accept and recycle old computers, GPS units, TVs, printers, monitors, cables, cell phones, remotes, headphones, and so on. The store even rewards you with an instant discount on a new purchase or a gift card.

Nobody buys a new fridge or alarm clock every other year, because the feature sets of those product categories are mature. Maybe that will happen to our phones and cameras, too; already people are keeping their PCs longer than they did a decade ago.

In the meantime, we can make things better right now, without making anyone sacrifice much. Pressure the manufacturers to boast about their own eco-efforts—and pressure yourself to dump your old gear at Best Buy or Radio Shack. Doing a good deed for the world couldn’t get much easier.No, the most realistic solution is to leave the business model alone—but to fight its wasteful consequences on two fronts. First, we can pressure the electronics companies to make the products less damaging. Factors that nobody used to care about (hormones in milk, fuel efficiency in cars) have become important marketing points. Why couldn’t electronics companies tout energy efficiency, nontoxic components and minimal packaging in their advertising?

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