|Palm tree scandal in NYC|
The Story of Stuff cites Moore's law, which says that processor speeds can double every 18 months, a prediction which has held true for silicon processors and transistors.. Moore's law is a contributing factor, necessary but not sufficient, to explain the rapid obsolescence of cell phones and pentium and AMD chips.
|Today's price: $4|
Even for silicon chip based devices, Moore's law does not suffice to make something obsolete. It makes a bigger space, but unless you have software operating systems which demand that space and eat it up, you are only halfway to obsolescence. Cynics would say that the call on destruction of hard drives has as much or more to do with the destruction of programs which run on legacy equipment as it has to do with privacy. The EULA (End User License Agreement) was designed in the 1990s for just that purpose, giving perpetual copyright to software designers, rather than have them follow the laws of World Intellectual Property Organization (I prefer OMPI, the French acronym).
What about actual physical obsolescence of non-silicon-chip electronics? Sometimes media is no longer produced, like 8 track cassettes. In that case, a "fully functional" 8 track player is still obsolete, and the rule that the Basel Secretariat is working on, based on functionality, is a non-sequetor to the e-scrap market. And the big example is televisions, in "moore ways than one".
The USA just finished transition to high definition, digital bandwidth last year. The old analog sets don't work on rabbit ear TVs in the USA. Sometimes we get a TV set for recycling for that reason - someone at the recycling event in Rhode Island explained that was why he was getting rid of his spare room TV set.
It was a black and white TV.
It was a fashion move, not a Moore's law move. When the price of new color TVs (like the price point for microwaves in the early 1970s) hits a certain point, the consumer preference flips and the old technology can no longer achieve scale production. It becomes obsolete from the point of view of making new ones. If the consumers have a certain disposable income, and the price point for the new-fashion device hits a certain point, it seriously impacts the used market.
You can still watch a Mexico soccer match on an NTSC television.
CRT computer monitors, as display devices for poor schools in Africa, will soon cease to command enough market share for scaleable production. But that is very different from the secondary market, which is not dictated by economy of scale, but by fashion and consumer disposable income. A black and white TV will work in Ghana, but the difference in price between a used black and white and used color TV is so small, that the marketplace of humans who would be sensitive to that price point do not have electricity.
This needs to be studied by economists before we do something really stupid, like pass the Gene Green "E-Waste" bill.
Writing laws which say "tested working" and "no reuse" and "canellation" and "obsolete" have a real impact on young doctors and medical students in Lagos and Accra. The people claiming moral superiority are actually ill informed social engineers. They are hurting poor people.
The cost to wealthy societies of breaking working equipment, which has retained value, is an environmental necessity when there is truly no secondary added value for the working equipment, and no financially viable way to move that equipment to a useful market. Dumping the computer monitors on a country with no use for them, which breaks off the copper and throws away the CRT glass, is indeed exporting harm. However, this is not what happens to the majority of display devices.
We have confronted CBS News with photos and concrete evidence that a the majority of exported display devices are reused by people who cannot afford the difference in price with a new item. Despite economic evidence and actual documentation of the poor reporting, CBS 60 Minutes quietly keeps its prestigious award, and ran a story yesterday about Philippines scrap from Japan... without asking how much of it is working, and what percentage of what is burned is domestically generated. BAN keeps re-running the film. E-waste companies which invested in destruction of the equipment are standing and applauding and patting themselves on the back. And Annie Leonard's History of Stuff makes the simplified, exaggerated story more accessible to children.
But it is based on a lie which is already discovered. By the time it's discovery is common knowledge, the price of LCDs may actually have fallen to the point where the only consumers who would choose a CRT over an LCD will be those with no hope for electricity, a consumer market out of reach. We have reached a point where we may be trying to steer the ocean liner to view a sunset.
The winners will be the companies which the History of Stuff video implicates - those who pursue planned obsolescence, or obsolescence in hindsight. The losers, of course, will be the women who die in childbirth in Lagos, Accra, and Cairo, where the number one cause of death of women is the lack of computer blood banks and staff trained to use them.
|No remote controls, but not obsolete|
This blog is not really all about reuse markets for e-waste and technology. It's more of a wiki-leaks, philosophy paper, trying to document how public policy gets developed, and how environmentalists con themselves if they believe that their moral aspirations and non-profit 990 forms somehow innoculate us from commiting the same arrogant sins as the Catholic Church of the 1500s, the anti-communists of the 1950s, the Maoists of the Great Leap Forward, and other passion-driven causes.
I write based on the hope and belief that we environmentalists can more quickly respond to our dogmas, unintended consequences, and posturing as the perfect and enemy of the good. I believe that some environmentalists are smarter than others, and it is a great field for college students whose SAT scores are above those of the average "watchdog", and whose ability to distinguish between causes of obsolescence and life expectencies of a black and white CRT and a p4 chip will not cause them to throw Nigeria babies out with the bathwater.
If this blog is about making people care about used electronics, then it's really going to wind up on the scrap heap. The blog is about people setting environmental policy, using guilt about poor people as their marketing gimmick, but remaining silent when the Geeks of Color get Clubbed to Death. They tried to take used computers away from Pakistanis last year, and there was an uprising. We need to see the same uprising in Egypt, Malaysia, Kenya and Indonesia, and other countries whose Environmental regulators don't talk to their Commerce and Economics departments before drinking the BAN Kool-Aid, while even BAN distances itself from "4-year-of-manufacture" obsolescence schemes.
I aspire to be a writer about e-waste in the same way that Roger Ebert is a writer about movies. I don't have time to read his blog, but I really like it when I do. I'm forced to add more data to keep this policy blog at 297th.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I'm trying to make gizzard gravy which is a little more vegetarian, a little more Uttar Pradesh in its flavor. I rationalize, correctly, that gizzards are the protein for recyclers at Thanksgiving. I have permanently etched in my mind the image of someone who threw them away when we were visiting their house, never realizing they are my favorite part of the meal. I loved it when Fred Sanford praised necks and wings, and it was the only thing he and Lamont ever agreed on... I'm from Arkansas, and know that Tyson made billions learning to resell chicken poop as fertilizer, and sending chicken wings and gizzards to Asia on cargo jets, because when we were laughing at Redd Fox on our TVs, the rest of the world agreed with him.