How technology creates mountains of waste

Published: Published Date – 06:14 PM, Mon – 30 May 22

Hyderabad: Are you periodically forced to buy a new laptop because the technology – hardware or software – in your current laptop is no longer supported even though it’s fully functional?
The Microsoft Windows operating system is estimated to power about 90% of world’s personal computers today. Newer versions of Windows appear every couple of years or so. Once that happens, many applications, such as your favorite web browser, rush to support the new version. Over a few years, these applications move away from supporting older versions to the same extent as the new one. For example, Window Vista no longer receives updates from Google — that support has been removed by Microsoft itself.

Product lifespan

Companies design products with an expected lifespan, and they plan technical support and product warranty accordingly. A good rule of thumb to estimate a product’s lifetime is to look at its warranty period, as it can help you guess how often its manufacturer would be launching new products. Apple provides a one-year limited warranty and launches a new iPhone almost every year. After the initial warranty period, you need to purchase an additional warranty for extended coverage. The warranty period is clearly not the actual expected lifetime of a product. But it does mean that you will be buying a new and more expensive device. Even if you don’t, there will be a time no matter how functional the hardware is, there will no software technology for it.

Reduced choice

New products are seen as new choices but, unless you have the financial means, you actually have fewer choices. Using your older device constrains you because of the limited support for its hardware and software. And what happens when your old device runs into issues. Since there’s no more support available for the hardware or the software, your options are to upgrade, or look for people with the skills to repair it. An upgrade can be expensive and technical repair skills have sadly been on the decline.

This is not just the case in the consumer electronics industry, but also in the automobile and other industries across the advanced economies. Developing countries tend to have secondhand markets and thriving repair bazaars, such as Nehru Place and Gaffar Market in New Delhi, Harco Glodok in Jakarta and 25 de Marco in Sao Paolo. You may have access to these markets, but the quality of their services is seldom guaranteed.

Effect on purchasing power

It’s one thing to have purchasing power limited by financial means and another entirely to have it curtailed because of reduced choices. When a large customer base moves towards a particular set of products, a company need not continue offering support for pre-existing products. Many people may not need the new product, but they sell in the name of technological ‘evolution’ even when this evolution is nothing more than feature enhancement.

Contribution to e-waste

In countries where a service provider also sells consumer devices on contract, reduced choices may not be apparent. For example, with the launch of every a new iPhone, customers may have the option to upgrade to the latest device at a cost, however, many see this as an opportunity to get a new device every few years. Some of the devices discarded as a result may find their way through vendor buyback programs, others may be recycled or refurbished versions in certain markets – but mostly without any warranty. Many others still, though, find their way to a landfill and thus contribute to electronic waste.

Even if consumers are given a choice to not contribute to e-waste or delay it as much as possible, will they be likely to exercise it? Probably not, given the rate of technological evolution. Devices discarded because of a lack of technical support are likely to find their way to landfills.

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