Enviro Monday: Planned obsolescence and how you’re duped into buying stuff you don’t need

Do you remember when a fridge lasted for at least two generations and when you could use your mom’s old washing machine for another twenty years after she gave it to you when you moved into your first flat?

Compare that, to how long appliances now last before you have no choice, but to replace them. That’s planned obsolescence.

Have you thought about what happens to the items you discard – from computers to your regularly replaced cellphone?

Planned obsolescence explained


The concept of planned obsolescence, or designed obsolescence, is said to originate from early lightbulbs that lasted too long to be profitable enough.

In December 1924, all of the big lightbulb manufacturers, including General Electric, Philips, Osram and Associated Electric Industries, met to establish the Phoebus Cartel – the first group to implement the practice of planned obsolescence. The cartel grew out of collusion between a few of these industry giants. All companies involved had to limit the lifespan of their bulbs to 1 000 hours, compared to the previous 2 500 hour standard. This forced consumers to buy lightbulbs much more often than they previously had.

Today, as a result of planned obsolescence, items or parts last just past their guarantee date, or a new model is released, rendering last year’s model passé.

“They just don’t make them like they used to,” isn’t just a cliché.

So, what to do? The logical answer would be to repair the item, but when that repair is nearly as expensive as buying a new one or not even possible, the only option is to replace the item with a new one.

Where do all the discarded items go?


Many old electrical and electronic goods gather dust in storage waiting to be reused, recycled or thrown away. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as much as three quarters of the computers sold in the US are stockpiled in garages and closets. When thrown away, they end up in landfills or incinerators or, more recently, are exported to Asia and Africa.

Our tech gadgets require a multitude of elements, chemicals and metals to function – mercury, lead, hexavalent chromium and cadmium are just a few. In landfills, they have a significant impact on the environment. They can leach into the earth, polluting soil and water sources, if not properly recycled.  Some are carcinogenic, while others cause more particular diseases or nervous system damage.

It’s estimated that approximately 50 million tons of electronic waste (e-waste) are generated globally every year, containing parts valued at an estimated $55 billion.



In many countries, most notably Ghana, there are massive e-waste dumps where old electronics are picked apart for the valuable metals they contain.

Unfortunately the places where these devices end up are mostly characterized by extreme poverty, where very basic methods of recycling are used to extract the valuable parts.

In Ghana, it’s common to burn e-waste, letting plastics and invaluable material melt off, until the precious metals inside can be extracted. This process emits highly toxic fumes with little to no oversight from the government or other regulatory agencies. Meanwhile, children as young as 12 years old are put to work in an area some have described as “the gates of hell”.


WATCH: Planned obsolescence and the Light Bulb

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