THE dark underbelly of the consumer tech industry is its wastefulness.
Companies like Apple have built their business on convincing consumers to replace perfectly good gadgets on an almost annual basis with newer devices that increasingly are little different than the older versions.
The result is that Apple's stock goes up and up. But so does the pile of electronic consumer waste, estimated by some to be between 20 to 50 million tonnes a year globally. Much of the waste involves hazardous elements such as mercury, sulphur and lead, or materials that could be recycled including copper, nickel and zinc. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 15 to 20 per cent of e-waste in the U.S. is recycled. For every five defunct iPods tossed away, four go into landfills.
While we can put some of the blame for this waste at the feet of tech companies, we can only blame ourselves as consumers for buying into their patterns of consumption. I'd like to think we can have good and even new tech in our lives. But we have to be smart about it. Here are a few suggestions:
Make a plan for the intended length of use for your devices: I work on a threeyear plan for my purchases. Every laptop, phone or other device I buy must prove its worth to me for three years at a minimum. That's easiest for desktop computers, which can be substantially freshened with hardware upgrades like video cards or memory, and hardest for smartphones and tablets, many of which now don't allow even the battery to be replaced once it wears out. But charting a life course for your device both encourages you to think realistically about how you will use it and makes you calculate its purchase cost against what you believe its benefits to you will be. (You might even decide the purchase isn't worth it.) I bought a new laptop just over a year ago. I don't expect to replace it until 2014 at the earliest.
Be alert to new uses for old equipment: This goes hand in hand with planning your device use. Once your planned use of a device has been completed, there's no reason to simply toss it away. Older gear can be handed down to younger members of the family who are less discerning about having the latest and the greatest gadget. New uses for old tech can also easily be found. I've hooked up an old MP3 player to 10year-old computer speakers for a perfectly acceptable sound system in my bedroom. I use my now ancient netbook as my default device for travel, partly because I don't care what happens to it. Its Wi-Fi sharing function also makes it an excellent mobile hotspot.
Recycle responsibly: According to the industrysponsored Recycle My Cell program, about 96 per cent of the materials in an average cellphone are recyclable. If accurate, that's a hopeful statistic for the guilty consumer.
There are a couple of industry and government mandated recycling programs available in Metro Vancouver. Encorp is the central repository for most devices, from televisions to computers. You can find a list of locations for returning electronic items at return-it.ca. Please note that restrictions might apply on what's accepted at specific dropoff points.
Cellphones are a special case and cannot be dropped off at Encorp-sponsored locations. In Vancouver, various mobile phone carrier locations, including Rogers, Bell and Wind, will take your old phone. For a specific list, see recyclemycell.ca.
There are also alternative recyclers, such as Free Geek Vancouver, which uses donated computers and parts to teach computer skills to anyone willing to learn and donates free computers to non-profits in need. I've taken computer parts there myself and was impressed with the scale and purpose of the organization. You can find out more at freegeekvancouver.org.
One final note, when recycling any electronic device, make sure to wipe all the personal data from it to safeguard your privacy. But that's a topic for a future column.
Barry Link is editor of the Vancouver Courier newspaper. Email him at blink@vancourier. com or follow him on Twitter @trueblinkit.