Scientists: Short shelf life of personal electronics is hurting the environment

Three-quarters of people polled say they make purchasing decisions because of a 'desire for a better device,' not because the item failed, finds a study. That's 'ecologically unacceptable', says a government agency.

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Credit: ©IDG Communications, Inc. Photo contributed by Matthew Mikaelian

Users are replacing their devices faster than ever before, and it's hurting the environment, says the German Environment Agency (UBA).

And the shorter life isn't just caused by quick-failing, poor-quality products. Consumers' desire for the latest-and-greatest is a big part of the problem.

"Perfectly good" smartphones and flat-screens are simply getting junked for the newest variants, and that's an eco-headache, scientists from the Öko-Institut e.V. and Bonn University think.


Service-life is too short, and if people won't keep their equipment longer, it may ultimately have to be mandated that they do, think the Euro-bureaucrats.

There needs to be a "minimum period of durability for electronic and electrical appliances," the UBA says in a press release.

At the very minimum, public administrations should abide by a prescribed life for appliances. Those groups could get the idea started, conceivably.


The study, commissioned by the government agency and conducted by the academics, found that in addition to the discovery that three-quarters of the respondents make purchases purely because they think the new device is better, one of the problems is that you can't tell how long something will last just by looking at it.

Even if you could assume that consumers will keep products as long as they remain working (an assumption you can't make, the scientists found), there's often no visible indication of the item's quality.

Even the price doesn't help gauge quality, they discovered.

Labeling could help, they think.

"A system of labeling which expresses the typical life expectancy of an appliance in hours of use would be beneficial," UBA chief Maria Krautzberger says in the press release.

No built-in obsolescence

One good bit of news, discovered by the researchers, is that despite the inkling that manufacturers build-in obsolescence, it's a myth, they found.

The team couldn't find any evidence of it. Washing machine manufacturers, for example, weren't purposefully building appliances with weak drive-belts.

Remarkably, the researchers discovered that even if equipment makers had been doing that (which they hadn't) they needn't bother. People want new things all the time and are going to throw the gear away anyway—whether it works or not.

Development cycles

Indeed, we've seen product development cycles shrink overall recently. The smartphone has been one driver of that, with its one-year development cycle.

I've written recently about how the smartphone development cycle has affected how consumers look at automobile electronics' development cycles too. Consumers are disappointed to see three-year-old entertainment systems in new cars on dealer lots.

That's a lifetime in smartphone terms.


This report's researchers reckon that manufacturers of things like TVs, for example, do factor in a "certain product lifetime according to target groups, applications and product cycles," the press release explains.

In other words, the manufacturers don't need to build in failing parts. All they need to do is deliver new products.

A by-product of this rapid product turnover, though, is that testing can be less comprehensive, in part due to time constraints. That contributes to failing products.

Exchange programs

But it's the fact that consumers are replacing products even though they haven't failed, that UBA and the researchers think is an important issue.

"Initiatives and platforms in place for donating, sharing, exchanging or borrowing and lending appliances" are existing, UBA says.

"Consumers themselves must assume a measure of responsibility" too, UBA reckons.

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