When Apple pioneered the mass production of the tablet PC with its iPad, not everyone was persuaded that the gadget filled a gap in the needs of consumers that had not already been filled by laptops, desktops, and smartphones. However, since millions of iPads and millions of competitive versions were sold, consumers are indicating that there is indeed a healthy demand for the tablet.
Planned Obsolescence in Tablet Design
People justify buying a tablet because with this gadget’s multitasking abilities, they can now get rid of their smartphones, netbooks, and/or laptops because the tablet can function as all these gadgets in one. However, sales for these other gadgets continue to rise. In reality, people do get rid of these gadgets but eventually replace them with newer versions instead of replacing them with a tablet.
Just like smartphones, having a certain lifespan seems to be incorporated in the design of the tablet. Electronics companies design their products with a certain lifespan wherein the product is expected to work at its best or maintain compatibility with current systems within that time frame. With this strategy, companies rake in more profits as people come to think of their gadgets as replaceable objects; only good for a few months and eventually replaced by the next improved version. How many Apple fans bought the new iPad with Retina Display only to find out that the iPad 4 with the Lightning connector would be released six months later? This strategy is not unique to Apple as all other tablet manufacturers also use planned obsolescence as a design and profit strategy.
- Apple and Environment – After several complaints from Environmental Agencies, Apple finally embraces the green approach to technology and reduces the carbon footprint for each iPhone, iPad, and iMac that it produces. The tech giant also introduces its own recycling system.
- E-recycling and e-waste – This article rounds up Hewlett-Packard’s position on the massive accumulation of e-wastes in the country.
The Impact of Planned Obsolescence
As the demand and subsequent sales of tablet PCs increase every year, the bottom line in terms of environmental impact is that there is also an increase in the number of discarded tablets ending up in the garbage. Basically, tablet manufacturers inadvertently create demand for products that is bad for both the environment and human health right from the start and until the end of each product’s cycle.
Tablets have an impact on the environment the moment they are manufactured. The main environment hazards come in the form of emissions released into the air or into wastewater. Studies reveal that carbon dioxide emissions released in the production of one iPad equal that of a car that has been driven for 515 miles. This means that for the 55 million iPads sold, manufacturing has produced gas emissions equal to that of 1.2 million cars. Meanwhile, the wastewater released during the iPad’s manufacturing process flows into rivers and the ocean, disrupting the fragile ecosystems.
The detrimental impact of tablets on the environment continues right until the end of its life cycle. Despite efforts from manufacturers and environmentalists for consumers to properly dispose of electronic waste, most discarded tablets still end up in landfills. Tablet components contain toxic and carcinogenic substances like lead, mercury, and arsenic to name a few. Toxins from these substances leak from the gadgets into landfills, and seep into the water supply and eventually, the food chain.
What Is E-waste?
After you have purchased the latest tablet or smartphone, chances are none of your attention will fall on the old one that you have just replaced. The thing is, your old gadget does not magically disappear or take care of itself. Once an old electronic product – laptop, cell phone, tablet, video game console, DVD, CD, TV, digital camera – gets tossed in the trash, it becomes what is known as electronic waste. With the rapid advances in technology, better and cheaper versions of these products are introduced, and subsequently replaced and thrown away, each year.
- Center for Sustainable Future: See how Indiana University transforms its premises into a clean and green campus
- Environmental Stewardship: Columbia University dedicates Lerner Hall to house its own recycling center where students can bring their used and old electronics for recycling.
- E-Waste: Purdue University tackles the massive effect of the holiday shopping season to the e-waste crisis
- E-Waste Collection Center: University of San Diego opens it doors to acting on the advocacy of e-waste management by building its E-waste Collection Center in April 2011.
- E-Waste Crisis: The University of Michigan analyzes the impact of the computer industry on the environment and society by providing an informative article discussing the components of the e-waste stream.
- GeSI and StEP e-Waste Academy: United Nations University holds it e-Waste Academy that will host forums for the dissemination of knowledge, collaboration of partners, and interaction of stakeholders involved in e-waste system design.
- International E-Waste Design Competition: The University of Illinois holds its third International E-Waste Design Competition
- Office of Sustainability: (Indiana University)
- Stanford Recycling: Check out Stanford University’s dedicated page about E-wastes.
- Sustainable SF State: San Francisco State University ties up with Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. in picking up and destroying the campus e-waste.
- Taking Responsibility for E-Waste: Check out Chad Raphael’s article about taking responsibility for e-wastes on Santa Clara University’s publication.
- The E-waste Dilemma: The University of California (Irvine) poses the e-waste dilemma and focuses on the health and environmental hazards and implications of e-wastes.
The Current Global State
In the US alone, people throw out 130,000 computers and 350,000 cell phones every day. Globally, a total of 50 million metric tons of e-waste are produced annually. Moreover, it is not just in the US and other developed countries where the amount of e-waste is on the uptrend. Developing countries like China and India will also increase production of e-waste more than ten times in the next ten years. On average, 20% of e-waste gets recycled, while 80% goes directly in the trash.
What Happens to the 20%?
Precious metals such as silver, gold, titanium, aluminum, iron, tin, and copper are usually mined from the e-waste that goes to recycling centers. However, the recycling process is not as straightforward and environmentally-friendly as most people would like to think. To get these precious metals, old electronics must be dismantled, and doing so in a safe manner is time-consuming and expensive. Thus, e-waste is exported to countries like Ghana and China where regulations are lax or non-existent and labor is cheap.
In these countries, old phones, tablets, and computers are taken to slums where they are stripped apart and plastic components are burned to get the precious metals. This process is done without the aid of proper tools or protective clothing. In Ghana, it is not unusual for adult and child workers to be cut by broken computer parts and not get the proper medical attention. In a town called Guiyu in China, women and children heating up circuit boards and laptop adapters by their fireplaces is a common sight. They recover lead, gold, and other metals while oblivious to the ash piling up all around them.
Not surprisingly, these workers, as well as residents in surrounding areas, experience the effects of industrial pollution in their midst sooner or later. Smoke filled with toxins hovers over Ghana’s recycling slums. When it rains, poisonous chemicals leaking from the pieces of old electronics spread throughout the land and eventually find their way into the food supply. Meanwhile, studies from Shantou University in Guiyu reveal that the town’s residents have the highest level of cancerous dioxins in the world and miscarriage rates have risen exponentially.
The 80% in Landfills
Meanwhile, 80% of e-waste mostly turns up in landfills. Improperly disposed of, the toxic and poisonous materials found inside these gadgets such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury leak from the dumpsite. These carcinogenic substances contaminate the groundwater, infusing poison into food and water supplies, eventually causing illnesses ranging from neurological damage of fetuses to cancer in children and adults alike.
The impact of e-waste on the environment and people’s health cannot and should not be ignored. While consumers are urged to be more mindful in their purchase and use of electronic gadgets, environmental groups are also pressuring manufacturers of tablets and other consumer electronics to do their part in order to significantly solve this problem.
Reducing Toxic Materials
Tablet manufacturers claim that by virtue of its functions, they are already reducing pollution caused by consumers. For example, tablets are also e-readers, which should reduce the carbon footprint produced by the entire printed book process – from paper production and printing, to shipping. However, this defense just emphasizes the fact that tablets have only changed the type of waste being produced. Thus, gadget manufacturers are still accountable for the electronic waste they create.
It is said that 80% of the environmental impact of a product is made during its inception or design stage. Therefore, in order to reduce the impact of e-waste on the environment, tablet manufacturers start with the design of their product. Having the largest market share, and therefore being a major contributor to the world’s growing piles of e-waste, Apple has taken several environmentally-friendly initiatives starting with how the iPad is designed.
For one, the company shifted from using LCD screens to LED-backlit displays. Aside from consuming less power and having a longer life, LED screens do not contain the mercury found in their LCD counterparts. Additionally, the display glass of the iPad is now arsenic-free and recyclable. The battery is improved so that it uses less power and lasts longer on a single charge. PVC and BFR (brominated flame retardants) have also been removed from the components that make up the popular tablet. Lastly, the iPad, as well as other Apple products, is now made with less packaging, thereby reducing carbon emissions not just during manufacturing, but also during the shipping stage.
- Following The Trail Of Toxic E-Waste - Do you know where those discarded electronic devices land once you put them in the waste bin. This 13-min video takes you to where your trash earns its place and how dangerous its effects are in the people’s health and environment. See how it mars the first law of the digital age: Newer is better.
- E-Waste Recycling - New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation discusses state laws regarding e-waste management enforced in the city.
Easy and Effective Recycling Programs
Tackling the issue of e-waste does not end at the design stage. In fact, it is during the afterlife of old gadgets that manufacturers of tablets and other electronics must take effective action. Apple claims that they have implemented several recycling programs in 95% of the countries where their products are being sold. The recycling program is applicable for both current and outdated models of their products. Basically, it involves the customer sending their old gadget back to the company and receiving an Apple gift card in return.
Here are several companies and their efforts in decreasing the environmental impact of the products they manufacture or sell:
- Apple claims that they have implemented several recycling programs in 95% of the countries where their products are being sold. The recycling program is applicable for both current and outdated models of their products. Basically, it involves the customer sending their old gadget back to the company and receiving an Apple gift card in return.
- Since 2004, Dell has been offering free recycling, where customers just have to arrange online for their old gadgets to be shipped back. The company has also partnered with office supplies giant, Staples for an in-store recycling program, as well as with environmental audit firms, to confirm if their recycling partners are really doing their jobs.
- Sony has announced that it will only work with recycling companies that do not export their e-waste.
- South Korean tablet PC maker Samsung has been implementing the Samsung Recycling Direct [SM] program, wherein the company directly partners with take-back and recycling companies that practice proper recycling procedure. According to its website, the program has, as of July 2012, collected close to 192 million pounds of electronic waste.
- Transformer maker Asus has partnered with Metech Recycling in asking owners to mail their gadgets for recycling. They send these Asus device owners a container and a shipping label, making the process free.
- Acer also has a recycling program partnered with Best Buy, as well as a mail-back program for old technology. The company has a dedicated website informing device owners of the availability of the recycling program in their area
Other device manufacturers also have their own programs in place. Since 2004, Dell has been offering free recycling, where customers just have to arrange online for their old gadgets to be shipped back. The company has also partnered with office supplies giant, Staples for an in-store recycling program, as well as with environmental audit firms, to confirm if their recycling partners are really doing their jobs. On the other hand, Sony has announced that it will only work with recycling companies that do not export their e-waste.
Further Actions to Take
Environmental groups have challenged tablet manufacturers to not just stick with current recycling programs but to also improve on them. For example, despite being discouraged from exporting e-waste, some recycling companies still continue the practice. Thus, to be more proactive, electronics manufacturers are encouraged to partner with the government and other institutions where the waste is exported and to provide equipment and facilities to make the process safer for workers.
- Greenpeace International - This Flash Animation illustrates the path of electronic wastes from the United States and Europe to wastelands mostly in African and Asian countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and China. Proof that most of the electronic wastes we dispose of don’t get resold, or even recycled.
- E-Stewards - This site gives you a 12-minute presentation on how we should become responsible stewards in the information age. It poses the astronomical e-waste crisis and presents the e-Stewards solution. It teaches us how many of the nearby countries take the environmental and health hazards of our e-wastes as they are allegedly transported for recycling.
- United Nations Environment Programme - The United Nation’s Glabal Partnership on Waste Management discusses some focal areas of e-waste management in neighboring countries. It also proposes sustainable business plans involved in the e-reycling industry.
- Solving the E-Waste Problem - STEP takes the discussion further by giving a news-like analysis on how e-waste has become a massive problem across countries.
- E-Waste Solution - An article that gives you fine ways to turn your e-waste problem into lucrative opportunities.
The pace at which technology is advancing gets faster each year, and nothing illustrates this more than the shrinking period of time from when a gadget is launched and the time when its upgrade is announced. For example, it was only six months between the latest two versions of the iPad.
As a result, people with the desire and cash for these products are buying and throwing away more gadgets each year. The result of such seemingly mindless consumption of electronic gadgets is the growing piles of e-waste all over the world, harming the environment and human health. Obviously, people cannot be forced to stop buying electronics. However, they can be persuaded to be more responsible consumers.
Reduce, reuse, recycle – there is a reason for the order of this environmental mantra. Reducing consumption means less demand, and therefore a reduced need to manufacture things. When it comes to consumer electronics such as tablets and smartphones, people can put this into practice by buying every other model instead of upgrading every time a new model comes out, especially if their current device still works perfectly. Thus, consumers must ask themselves if a new upgrade is essential or if what they have still suffices. To be more environmentally conscious, consumers should also buy with durability in mind. Taking proper care of gadgets to extend their life is also a good step in the ‘reduce’ phase.
For tech geeks and fanatics who find that the desire for the latest and hottest tablet cannot be denied, there are still options that will make their purchases less guilt inducing. Those with children or younger siblings could pass on their used devices as gifts. Another option would be to donate their old gadgets to underprivileged students who need these devices but cannot afford them.
There is also cash to be found in old gadgets, especially if they are still working. One can find several buyers online such as eCycle Best that not only exchange old gadgets for cash, but also make the whole process convenient for their customers. These companies typically offer free shipping or convenient drop off places such as a USPS store. People who give away or sell their old gadgets are reminded to erase all data to prevent malicious use such as identity theft.
How about tablets, smartphones, and laptops that already broke and cannot be sold? One cannot just simply throw them in the recycling bin as chances are, local waste facilities do not have the capacity to recycle e-waste, and they might just end up in the mounting heaps of trash in landfills.
To recycle, tablet owners can start with the gadget manufacturer and see if they offer free recycling. Sony, HP, Dell and Apple are just some of the manufacturers that already have recycling programs in place. However, not all manufacturers accept broken products.
The next step would be to find a recycler, though not all recyclers follow environmental guidelines. As mentioned previously, some export the e-waste to developing countries like Ghana where slum-dwellers dismantle them without protective equipment or clothing. For a list of recyclers recommended by environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency and the website ban.org are good places to start.
Some online buyers mentioned earlier also purchase gadgets that are not functioning. Most of these companies salvage parts from broken tablets that can still be reused when repairing damaged units.
The Last Word
Tablet PCs are set to become a major technological innovation people will continuously subscribe to in coming years. With the popularity of tablet PCs, the amount of waste products related to them will also increase. It is encouraging to see that companies have taken concrete steps in reducing the adverse environmental impact their products may cause. Now, it is time for individual consumers to step up and take an active role in making sure their mobile devices, especially tablet PCs, do not contribute to the detriment of the environment.