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New product hits the market, old one hits the dumpster

28 January 2010

iPad, I'm your father

A company that makes computers, phones and mp3 players brought out a new product yesterday. After months of feverish speculation in the world’s media that the new product might be a kind of computer, the company unveiled the product — a kind of computer — to the surprise and delight of a few thousand of its closest friends at a press conference in North America.

A company spokesman explained that the device, which we’ll call the iPaid, was bigger than a big phone but smaller than a small computer. He also pointed out that although you couldn’t phone with it, it could do many computer-type things like keeping you amused, and it was magical and revolutionary.

The questions not on everybody’s lips include how can they make these things so cheaply, and are they good for the planet?

The firms’ products include parts designed and manufactured by other North American companies as well as components and software from Asia and Europe. Other electronics giants do the same.

If only the factory mattered, your mobile phone or MP3 player would be a Celestica, Flextronics, Jabil Circuit, Hon Hai Foxconn, Sanmina SCI or Solectron. Each of these firms that most of us have never heard of employs between 50,000 and 200,000 people globally and has annual sales between $8 billion to $16 billion.

That’s what we mean by global value chains. Things are done where they’re most cost-effective, and the networks of international trade bring the various components to where they’re needed at each stage from design through manufacturing, and then to the shop where you buy the product.

This splitting up of tasks is one reason so many products are so cheap. However, the fact that they are so cheap means that we throw them away when they stop working, because we’re bored with them, or because a new and better version comes along.

According to the UN, 20 to 50 million tons of waste from electrical and electronic equipment, WEEE, are generated each year from the products we throw away. Greenpeace estimates that only 25% of WEEE generated in the EU27 each year is collected and treated.

No precise data are available on whether the rest is stored, disposed of otherwise within the EU, or exported to developing countries.

Part of the 25% collected may also be exported, and hazardous waste exports are taking place despite an EU ban on such exports to non-OECD countries. Figures for the US are similar, with 80% of this waste incinerated, sent to landfill, put into “storage or reuse”, or exported .

The Probo Koala case shows what happens to some of it. In 2006, the tanker Probo Koala was trying to get rid of a load of toxic wastes that would have cost €500 000 to treat in the Netherlands. Too expensive. It offloaded the wastes onto trucks in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital. The trucks then dumped the waste at 14 municipal dumps around the city. The resulting pollution killed at least 7 people and poisoned 9000 others, provoking vomiting, nosebleeds, headache and rashes.

Globalisation has brought down the cost of goods, making them, and their benefits, affordable to vast numbers of people. There are now 4 billion mobile phones in the world, but the price of your plan isn’t the only cost.

Useful links

OECD website on ICTs, the Environment and Climate Change

OECD Trade Directorate

OECD Sustainable Development web site

Greenpeace ranks the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Erik Laading permalink
    January 28, 2010

    Interesting viewpoint but what about the ecological footprint of dematerialized versus physical content? What about transforming trees into paper to be shipped back and forth around the planet and transformed mutiple times by highly polluting industries? Does anyone know if there are figures on the ecological impact of content dematerialization?

  2. kaye laPointe permalink
    January 28, 2010

    Doesn’t it all come down to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and a lot of it comes down to personal responsibility. We are using less equipment and what we use is smaller, more precise and serves multiple needs. I agree with the comment that most of the problem is how we are transporting this “stuff” around the globe. For instance….look at the trucking industry in the U.S. How long has it been since we looked at a more efficient, less emission transportation system in that industry? Money needs to be allocated for updating transportation systems that we are constantly using. What is e-waste really costing us?

  3. jeff winograd permalink
    January 28, 2010

    What we call globalization seems more appropriate to refer to as a dynamic partitioning of the world. Rather than work to create a level playing field in which all citizens of our planet are encouraged to live similar existences, we have exploited the variations in living conditions to service a large profit margin for those who are rich enough to begin with to build businesses that exploit that difference. As this blog shows, there is abuse all along the chain, from the creation of the initial components through the management of the waste products created. In fact, this whole charade, played out by those who claim to be most in favor of capitalism, is one which goes against the very heart of the capitalist idea of a free market. These markets, being manipulated both politically and economically, are by no means free.

    Perhaps the most appalling thing about the ipad (besides of course having a name that was so easy to parody that it happened before the product was even announced) is that it appears to create an additional product in our world rather than streamlining our existing product line. The iphone, for all its wastefulness, did streamline several existing devices to create something that while not altogether new, somehow created a new experience. That narrowing of products needed to continue our current style of living seems to offer the best of what our technology has. The ipad, conversely, appears to break that tradition and create a device that appeals to those who already have iphones as well as to those who already own laptops.

    It is often hard to see the value of technological advances as they happen and I have little doubt that touch screen technology, integrated into our existing computer structure, will continue to be utilized more frequently. Perhaps there will even be a convergence of technologies that allows for a more environmentally friendly approach to enjoying these advances. In much the same way, there is reason to hope that the very connection that causes such destruction in the Ivory Coast can lead to a more open global community over the long run. Still, it is hard to imagine that we are still exploiting our neighbors so freely in favor of how we can exploit other neighbors to buy a product that they don’t really need.

    And all that without even getting into the underlying environmental impact of even the most useful piece of technology.

  4. June Ebert permalink
    January 30, 2010

    In an economy based on consumerism there will always be a problem with the waste produced when one’s possessions are replaced with the newest, shiniest, state-of-the-art product, whether it be a technological gadget or the latest designer jeans. Obviously, the OECD and others are trying to raise awareness of the importance of sustainability, but until the general public buys into this idea we’ll not see producers doing much about this issue without government regulation.

    It’s not easy to start over with new systems such as the trucking system mentioned by K. LaPointe or the waste management system (such as it is) for outdated computers, but we must seek better ways. If the left behind computers cause concern, think about the mountains of out-dated automobiles that are seen on the outskirts of almost every town in the US inspite of a sizeable industry for recycling the metal.

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