Living in a disposable world

A few years ago, a contributor to a readers’ column in The Sydney Morning Herald gave an eye-opening account of his experiences trying to get a defunct DVD player repaired. After a heroic display of persistence and arm-twisting, he was successful, albeit at a price: the repair came to twice the cost of a brand-new unit.

Somehow we have reached a point in our throwaway society where those who try to repair household items are liable to be treated as dangerous eccentrics or socially maladjusted lunatics. This is closely tied to the phenomenon of planned obsolescence, whereby consumer items are designed to fall apart or be replaced sooner than is necessary. And it seems to be getting worse.

The term first appeared in Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. London was convinced that holding on to items rather than replacing them was central to the world’s economic ills and advocated levying an ownership tax on those who continued with such practices.

By the American consumer heyday of the 1950s, planned obsolescence was well underway and, unlike today, manufacturers frankly admitted it. In 1955, economist Victor Lebow declared, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.” Today, despite a huge advance in environmental awareness compared to the post-war era, we seem to be living out Lebow’s vision.

A related issue is perceived obsolescence, where a product is replaced while still functional. This most often involves items affected by styling and fashion: clothing, cars, mobile phones and other gadgets. Apple, in particular, has a cult-like following that drives many of its devotees to upgrade whenever possible. The embarrassment of owning a product that is conspicuously old motivates the desire to upgrade, especially among young consumers. This is reinforced through advertising and popular culture.

Obsolescence is tied to advertising-driven consumerism as it fuels the engine of economic growth while providing jobs, albeit unnecessary ones. Among its advocates, obsolescence is seen as driving product innovation, which is seen as a good thing.

Avoiding the disposable

In our modern society, disposable items such as pens, razors, toothbrushes, tissues, batteries and tyres have come to play a central role. However, some manufacturers don’t seem to want us to get full use out of their products: one brand of disposable pen tends to stop working when the ink has been part-used, while another responds to writing pressure by producing a crack around the nib area. Some brands of tissues give you several when you pull out one and it’s necessary to rip apart the bottom of the box to access those closest to the bottom. If advertising is anything to go by, we should be covering the toothbrush with toothpaste, when a pea-sized amount is sufficient.

Seemingly everywhere we turn, we are either being ripped off or defending the contents of our wallets against wily product designers. To minimise use of disposables, switch to products such as rechargeable batteries, electric shavers and toothbrushes with replaceable heads. Units such as the ReZap can recharge both single-use and rechargeable batteries, making it feasible to use batteries that others throw away. There are numerous tips for greatly extending the life of disposable razors, such as rubbing them on denim and drying them thoroughly.

One of the best-documented examples of a corporate conspiracy tied to planned obsolescence was the Phoebus Cartel, a body formed by the major lightbulb manufacturers that existed from 1924 to 1939. It ensured that bulbs that had once been advertised as offering 2500 hours or more had their maximum lifespan reduced to 1000 hours and member companies were fined by the cartel if their products lasted any longer.

High-tech obsolescence

When it comes to modern gadgets, obsolescence is central to the business model. With technology developing at such a pace, a product bought new today may be out of date in a couple of years. One-year warranties are the norm and phone support often ends after 90 days, further encouraging buying a new replacement.

Fiendish strategies can include no backward compatibility, where new products are incompatible with older components. The solution is to keep the old technology if it still works. Sometimes, new versions of proprietary software are incompatible with earlier files or programs, while open-source software has no similar issues.

When PCs fall behind in the speed stakes, a common reaction is to go shopping for a replacement — but another option is to tweak the performance and boost the memory capacity or RAM. Otherwise, avoid downloading too many unnecessary programs, delete those no longer in use and defrag regularly. Slight slowness is not a problem for most people and extra data can be stored in an external hard drive. According to technology experts, Mac computers and iPads are often harder to upgrade and repair.

Apple iPhones, with their built-in batteries, have been singled out for their disposability. Replacing the battery in Australia and New Zealand involves sending the phone to Apple, living without it for about a week and paying at least AU$89 or NZ$119 plus postage. Likewise, an iPod battery can be replaced for AU$59–$89 or NZ$69–$119. Many people choose instead to upgrade. Most people on phone and iPad plans automatically upgrade their devices when their plan contract expires because there is no upfront cost for the new phone or iPad with a renewed contract.

Computer printers are another area of tension between profit-hungry businesses and resourceful users. Epsons, for example, have a page counter that eventually stops them from working, but Epson-specific reset software is available online. Some HP cartridges have expiry dates, which can be bypassed by temporarily setting back the computer clock. Other industry tricks are to notify that a cartridge needs replacing when it is part-full and disabling printing when one colour drops below a specified level. To minimise ink usage, adjust the settings to draft greyscale black and white. Many users choose to refill their cartridges rather than buy another one and shops that offer this service recommend switching off automatic printer software updates, as these may cause refilled cartridges to be rejected.

The effects on society

Household appliance purchases were once expensive when measured in terms of their percentage of one’s weekly income. Over time, they have dropped in price, coupled with a corresponding fall in durability. Today, each purchase requires substantially less of the paycheque but it might need to be replaced several times more frequently.

With the exception of eye-wateringly expensive watches, hardly anything is designed to last forever and a lack of affordable durable options in the marketplace restricts our freedom and choice. For low income earners, the elderly and people struggling financially, it represents an added economic burden that encourages overwork and overtime.

Furthermore, choosing and buying a replacement represents a drain on everyone’s time, attention and mental energies. Like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, comsumers can find themselves running to stay in the same place. If the architects of planned obsolescence go too far, they are liable to meet buyer resistance, whereby consumers get fed up with running on the treadmill and may switch brands.

To an alien race seeking to understand the human species, planned obsolescence would look like a form of collective insanity. While older people might agree, younger generations have never known anything but obsolescence-driven waste and have come to accept it as normal. For the wellbeing of people and the planet, it’s important to challenge the legitimacy of this practice.

Environmental costs

Nearly all products are associated with some kind of ecological footprint from mining, non-renewable energy use, toxic chemical pollution and greenhouse emissions. This is exacerbated by unnecessary consumerism and planned obsolescence further multiplies all these impacts. A statistic from the US indicates that only 1 per cent of the total material flowing through the production system is still in use six months later.

At the end of the process, the waste created by obsolescence represents a financial burden on taxpayers. Electronic waste is a particular problem because in landfills it leaches a range of toxins including arsenic, cadmium and cobalt. Fortunately, an Australian product stewardship program for TVs and computers came into effect in July 2012 and is being rolled out nationally. Under such a scheme, products are returned to the manufacturer at the end of their lives so that component parts can be reused or recycled. This, in turn, may encourage companies to design products to last longer as a means of avoiding the costs of managing worn-out items.

Some countries encourage obsolescence through vehicle scrappage incentive programs such as those that have been running for new car buyers in parts of Europe and North America. While the new vehicles are generally more efficient and less polluting, somewhere around 20 per cent of the energy used by a car during its lifetime is the embodied energy associated with its manufacture. Unless you have a guzzler or your annual mileage is particularly high, sticking with your present vehicle until the end of its life may be the best option.

Tapping into the knowledge bank

The best way to end planned obsolescence would be for governments to regulate it, but they are reluctant to interfere with the workings of the market. However, if a product sold in the UK fails just outside its warranty, this is legally considered to be a violation of consumer rights. In 2006, a British consumer settled out of court with Apple for the failure of an iPod navigational click wheel.

For people who want to take matters into their own hands, suggested steps include:

  • Look at hiring as an alternative to buying.
  • Look for alternatives to disposables.
  • Investigate more durable options and be prepared to pay more for them. It may save money in the long run.
  • Look for products with long warranties and buy extended warranties unless they are prohibitively expensive.
  • Get items repaired where it makes economic sense. If you can afford to, consider repairs even when the economic benefits are dubious.
  • Everyone has a useful skill. Look at opportunities to arrange cheap repairs with friends, either on a cash or energy-exchange basis.
  • Where you want to be rid of an item that requires a repair, offer it to your local Freecycle group.

Perhaps most importantly, learn to repair items yourself, thus gaining extra skills as well as a sense of accomplishment. Websites such as and are goldmines of useful tips. Starting with your current level of knowledge, focus first on the Araldite and screwdrivers. Some products have anti-tamper screws that can be removed using a Dremel rotary tool to create a slot in the head that can then be screwed out. In some electric toothbrushes, however, the battery can only be changed using a soldering iron.

Authorities recommend that any repair to an electrical item be carried out by a licensed professional to minimise fire risks. To give one example, faulty iPhones have occasionally been known to glow red and emit smoke; in one case this was found to have been caused by a short circuit following an inferior repair job. However, some people who feel they have the necessary skills are doing their own repair work on gadgets.

In the modern world, acquiescing to things falling apart at an ever-accelerating rate is a type of mindless conformism. Given the damage this is doing, we should consider joining the ranks of the rebels.


Further information

The Story of Stuff (short film)
The Story of Electronics (short film)
Fix-It Club
How To Mend It


Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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