Notes from Guardian report (15.04.20) by John Harris on e-waste and planned obsolescence


There is a pressing need to talk about educational technology in terms of the disposal – rather than adoption – of digital technologies. The laptops, tablets, desktop PCs, monitors and printers that are most prevalent in educational settings have notoriously short shelf-lives. Many of these digital devices suffer from the ‘planned obsolescence’ – the deliberate design of products to slow down after a few years, become incompatible with the latest software, have irreplaceable parts, and increasingly short battery life. After only a few years, previously working devices are suddenly rendered inert and unusable – sometimes referred to as ‘bricked’ (as in made as useless as a brick). 

What some technologists like to describe as a natural process of innovation and renewal (aka ‘upgrading’ and ‘updating’) is actually a cynical feature of product design intended to keep digital technology users in a cycle of buying new products. It is estimated, for example, that the smartphones are kept by users for between two to three years. Similarly, the average lifetime of a desktop printer is as little of five hours and four minutes of actual printing time. 

As a result, latest figures suggest around 277 million laptops and 160 million tablet units are bought each year, with considerably far fewer being re-used or re-cycled. In 2019, it is estimated that in excess of than 53 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated around the world, with only 17.4 percent being recycled. Half of this e-waste was made up from TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets.

This is as much an ethical as an environmental problem. The final destination for this e-waste is often some of the poorest and most polluted regions of countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, China and Brazil. Much of this work is carried out in highly dangerous and low-paid conditions. Moreover, even if all these devices were to be recycled it would be of limited benefit. Relatively few raw materials can be salvaged during any act of recycling a digital device – perhaps plastic, glass, aluminium and copper that constitute perhaps 20 percent of a smartphone or tablet. 

In contrast, these devices are often designed to make repair, refurbishment and reuse nigh-on impossible – and certainly not cost-effective. Ed-tech – as with all areas of digital technology use – in trapped in a deleterious cycle of over-consumption and wasteful disposal …  Curiously, this is something this very rarely gets mentioned in discussions of technology-enhanced learning and digital education. We need to do better!