Are today’s high tech bargains tomorrow’s toxic time bombs?

Published in the Otago Daily Times, 6 Apr 2004

Were you one of the thousands of consumers to either purchase or receive a DVD player last Christmas? A bargain at $89.95!  It is by far a superior product compared to VCR’s.  They give crisp picture quality, there is no need for to wait for fast forward or rewind and all manner of supplementary information is also supplied on the DVD.  Perhaps you picked up a set of power tools for $99.95.  It was not so long ago that we were paying well over $100 per item for our battery drills and power saws.  There is no need to have that old microwave oven repaired.  Buy a new model for $149.99.  We are seeing an unprecedented wave of low prices for a wide range of electrical goods.

But there is a down side to all of this new technology and the bargain basement prices for electrical goods. That DVD player and all other electrical and electronic appliances are causing us to leave a toxic legacy in every landfill and rubbish dump in New Zealand.   DVD players along with all other appliances contain a wide variety of chemicals.  Some are toxic and some are chemically very stable.  The main toxic culprit is lead.  The television or computer monitor on which you watch DVD’s also contains lead.  The glass picture tube contains lead.  The circuit boards contain lead.  The acidic conditions in a landfill will cause a toxic cocktail of chemicals from the discarded appliances to build up in the bottom of the landfill.  This leachate may leak into groundwater.  If this awful brew were to be collected it would be difficult to process into a safe waste. The stable substances used in the DVD player are plastics.  This stability is a virtue that makes plastic a useful item but it will also cause it to remain unmodified in a landfill for a rather long period of time.

Within a few years we may see the price of a combination DVD recorder and player drop to similar levels as DVD players.  This will make your current DVD player obsolete.  It will also make all VCR’s obsolete.   VCR’s are yet another appliance that contain lead.  A few more years down the track we will all have the capability of cheap and fast streaming video from our “media service provider” via our internet service provider. Steaming video from the internet is in its infancy at present.  This will soon change.  In many countries there was an almost exponential increase in internet use mostly via dial up modems.  Dial up modems are crude, slow and cumbersome when compared with a broadband connection.  Broadband internet allows for fast up and down loading and does not prevent the use of a telephone to make or receive calls. If broadband internet was reasonably priced there will be a faster uptake of this service.  It is a shame that the current monopoly on the telephone lines does not allow for competition to supply broadband internet.  With the uptake of broadband internet we will see another wave of redundant equipment tossed into the rubbish.

If you are unlucky to have your DVD player fail while under warranty it may be replaced rather than being repaired.  These items are uneconomic to repair due to the low cost of landing them at the ports of New Zealand.  The importer cannot justify having the player repaired due to our high labour rates. Highly mechanised factories in countries with low labour rates can churn out tens of thousands of these cheap commodities. Many electronics servicing organisations will not lift a screwdriver for less than $30.  A minimum service fee for repairs is justified since an increasing number of items are uneconomic to repair.  It would be unfair to amortise the time to inspect an unrepairable item onto all other customers repair bills. There is a good chance that the DVD player will not be repaired due to lack of parts or high cost of repairs. In this case the owner or service organisation would discard the DVD player.

Another side effect of this technological age is energy wastage.  Since it is generally accepted the burning of fossil fuels is causing a climate change it follows that we should reduce our energy from this particular source.  Hence the need for an international treaty to control the use of fossil fuels.  It is unfortunate that we have arrived at the flawed Kyoto Protocol as a compromise for controlling greenhouse gas emissions.   The process of getting the DVD player to your home required coal, oil and gas to be burnt at virtually every step of the way.  Minerals were mined, refined and transported to factories.  Iron ore was cast into billets.  Billets were reformed into sheet metal for your DVD player. Copper ore was mined, cast, tempered, drawn, processed, coated, packaged and transported.  Crude oil was fractional distillated into various products including diesel and petrochemicals.  The diesel helped to transport the petrochemicals to a factory to make the plastics that will be part of your DVD player. The DVD player was manufactured from the hundreds of materials and thousands of individual items.  It was packaged in plastics and sent to New Zealand, delivered to a warehouse, couriered to the retailer, purchased by you and taken home.

With all this immense expenditure of energy (a portion of which is wasted) one would hope that a reliable product would result.  In actual fact a low cost item will have some degree of inbuilt obsolescence.  In order to achieve low costs manufacturers will drop the quality of the materials used and make a few shortcuts in the method of construction.  Impurities in materials cause premature failures of components or assemblies.  If the design engineers ignore temperature effects, power supply fluctuations and vibration the device will have short and long term unreliability.  It is possible to leave out some components that give protection from voltage transients, prevent spurious radiation and limit the extent of any circuit failures.

We are living in the Technological Revolution.  If science was a hundred years more advanced at the start of the Industrial Revolution we may well be living in a cleaner and healthier world.  Reuse and recycling systems must keep pace with emerging technologies. The EU, some states of the US and some Asian countries currently have, or will soon legislate for the recycling of electrical goods at the end of their useful life.  It is high time that we do the same here in New Zealand.  Unfortunately under the free market economic system environmental protection takes a back seat. A disparity in environmental protection between countries is yet another reason why we cannot head for the idealistic free trade model.