Products with 'Built in' Obsolescence

Published on May 3, 2003
Ian Birkby

Aiding in the development of products with built in obsolescence is one of the greatest sins committed by Materials Scientists in the 20th Century - discuss.

A good exam question? Probably not. It sounds like one of those arty-farty questions beloved of sociologists where there's more than one answer, so it's not a real engineering or science question.

But let's give it a go.

When I recently purchased my 6th mobile phone (average ownership period 18 months), I suddenly became aware that when my parents bought consumer goods, they expected them to last. I buy consumer devices with the sub-conscious acceptance that it will either be broken, become a lame-duck technology or attain un-cool status and necessitate a replacement purchase within a relatively short period.

I never consider such a device will "last" - I am a post-modern consumer, and unknowingly accept and embrace built in obsolescence.

A life-cycle analysis of my mobile phone ownership revealed the following results:

  • Suffered catastrophic salt water corrosion after a swimming pool incident (very poor underwater reception, not recommended for scuba diving activities).

  • Spectacular explosion viewed in the rear view mirror after leaving the handset on the car roof (bad purchase, should have gone for the rugged tradesman model).

  • Floppy "star trek communicator" flap failed at the snap fitted hinge.

  • My mate had one that could display colour pictures, had to have one - OK, pathetic fashion victim, guilty as charged.

  • Had to have access to WAP technology - 10 minutes post purchase analysis revealed that 2 tin cans with a piece of string would have been a better spend.

  • The contract ended so that's an ideal opportunity to buy another.

Now this is not behaviour I'm proud of, but I'm also of the opinion that there are a few more gadget jockeys out there that who have similar stories to tell.

Did I recycle any of the above phones? No.

Do I think I should? After I read the information below on the approximate weight of materials within my mobile I decided I should.

ABS-PC 29%
Ceramics 16%
Copper and Copper Compounds 15%
Silicon Plastics 10%
Epoxy 9%
Other Plastics 8%
Iron 3%

PPS 2%
Flame Retardant 1%
Nickel and Nickel Compounds 1%
Zinc and Zinc Compounds 1%
Silver and Silver Compounds 1%
Al, Sn, Pb, Au, Pd, Mn, etc less than 1%

Ref: BT Cellnet and Mobile Takeback sites, Sept 2001

Thankfully, my research for this column revealed that many manufacturers are indeed adopting a responsible approach to such problems.

Motorola are one example of a company who have adopted a responsible product take-back programme to recover consumers' products at the end of their useful lives.

However, the problem still remains that manufacturers have no incentive to remove built in obsolescence and until the majority of consumers are given more than an altruistic incentive to recycle, handsets will remain in desk drawers.

Now where's the number of that guy who had the mobile with the built in video recorder, I really need one of those!