THE BLOG

E, What a Waste

18/09/2013 13:35 BST | Updated 17/11/2013 10:12 GMT

If I told you I know where you can buy a fancy new scanner-cum-printer-cum-photocopier-cum-helicopter for less than a hundred quid, you'd probably think it a bargain. But what if I were to add that after three years the damn thing will be obsolete and you'll need a new one - would it still seem a good deal?

Last week I called the manufacturer of a scanner I'd had for several years but which stubbornly refused to work with our new laptop. After giving the make and serial number of the model it was explained the scanner wasn't designed to work with Windows 8; we'd have to get a new scanner. The "technician" started to reel off a list of fancy new scanners, all manufactured by the same company.

When I queried why I should buy a new scanner when my old one works fine I was told the "product cycle" for such products is only 3-5 years. In other words, the model might still work if your old laptop works, but if you decide - or rather, find it impossible to avoid getting - a new one, tough; the manufacturer won't provide you with driver support.

For most of us buying a new laptop isn't simply a matter of choice; we simply find after a bewilderingly short amount of time the one we have can't process the ever-increasing amount of data coming down the line or through the ether; try using the internet with a computer from ten years ago, with its meagre MB of RAM and a hard drive with a lower capacity than a modern flash drive.

A few years ago a TV engineer told me televisions are designed to wear out after a few years. The technology exists to manufacture a telly that would last many years, but that would represent a poor business model; how can there be "growth" unless people keep buying things - and throwing them away?

Each year in the UK we discard over a million tonnes of so-called e-waste: all those old scanners, PCs, mobiles and an estimated two million TVs that either stopped working or have become "obsolete". Around half of these six million items could be repaired but it's usually easier and cheaper just to buy a new one.

Although it's illegal to dump e-waste in UK landfill, countries in the developing world are only too happy to take it off our hands; after a long, energy-blitzing voyage by container ship the components are stripped, personal data removed and (probably) sold to spammers, and the flashy gadget you bought in the high street more recently than your last haircut begins bleeding dangerous chemicals.

According to Greenpeace, once dumped e-waste begins emitting lead, cadmium and mercury into the air, soil and water, some of which ends up in the food chain. When burnt, the pollution is even worse, with dioxins and furans released into the atmosphere.

As consumers we are all partly responsible for this disgraceful squandering of resources and money; next time you spot a printer or mobile, ask yourself if you really need a new one. But manufacturers can play their part too - by making things that last and by ensuring it's cheaper to have them repaired than replaced.