Planned obsolescence. It refers to objects made with a deliberately shortened useful life so that their makers could profit from forcing consumers to replace or upgrade them. The term was popularized in the 1960s when there was concern that automobiles were not built to last, but that was small potatoes before the digital age. Today, electronics from microwave ovens to laptop computers, appliances (and yes, those cars again, but now with embedded electronics) are not easily repaired, and it’s surely no accident. In many cases, manufacturers don’t make or distribute spare parts or share diagnostic tools. The result? A lot of digital technology is headed toward a premature burial in local landfills. That’s an increasingly costly environmental problem and it’s also outrageously wasteful and unnecessary.
In Annapolis, lawmakers have been presented with legislation to protect consumers from this kind of rip-off from makers of digital electronic equipment. The so-called “right to repair” bill is part of a growing national movement. Maryland’s version would require companies to provide tools, parts, software updates or documentation needed to repair their wares. The law would apply only to products in the future. Companies would not have to retrospectively allow for repair of products already on the market. And the proposal makes it clear that they would not have to share trade secrets.
The measure deserves some serious consideration. The problem of electronic equipment entering the waste stream is significant. Even in jurisdictions where electronics are accepted as recyclables, studies show people often don’t bother. It’s just too easy to toss a dead phone in the garbage can without thought to the toxic mix of chemicals and heavy metals contained inside, not to mention a potentially explosive battery. Advocates estimate that more than 20 million tons of end-of-life electronic products are produced every year. Americans should view that as an embarrassment but also an opportunity — even recycling costs money (chiefly to sort and break apart devices) whereas reuse is not only more cost-effective, it’s potentially profitable.
There are challenges, of course. Manufacturers will no doubt resent greater government oversight of their successful business model. There will be cries of proprietary secrets, of diminished brand value, of resale rights, perhaps even of liability. But none of these hurdles seem impossible to overcome. And surely, it is far better for companies to voluntarily step forward and embrace an ethos of repair than to face potential penalties down the road like getting billed for every cellphone, robotic vacuum or Bluetooth speaker that ends up at the landfill or local incinerator.
And protecting the environment is just one of the potential benefits. Extending the life of products creates jobs. And these are jobs that would effectively be distributed widely like electronic products — not just in one or two locations but across the country in cities, suburbs and rural areas, where these items are used. It would also likely save taxpayers money, not only in extending the life of these common household items but in creating less burden on waste disposal. Remember that 20 million tons of electronics? If every blue whale alive today were measured on a scale, all those consumer items would be heavier. About six times heavier, according to the Digital Right to Repair Coalition.
Political conservatives have lately gotten into a pattern of trotting out every fossil fuel worker who loses his or her job as an argument against the green economy. Where is the Keystone pipeline workers next job? Well, here are potentially thousands of them. And they come will less poisoning of the land, water and air. These are sustainable jobs. Building pipelines that directly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions that, in turn, contribute to climate change are not sustainable. In Maryland alone, rising sea levels brought on by climate change pose disastrous consequences, particularly for waterfront communities from Ocean City to Havre de Grace. Why not be just slightly less wasteful instead?
Admittedly, this is a relatively new frontier. Maryland could become the first state in the nation to mandate that certain products be repairable. But is surely won’t be the last. Advocates say similar bills are pending in the majority of state legislatures and the fight has extended to Congress and the Supreme Court, too, where justices made it clear in Impression Products v Lexmark decision in 2017 that refilling ink cartridges (a form of recycling) was not a violation of patent rights. Ultimately, this ought to be common sense. But it probably won’t happen unless states like Maryland give manufacturers at least a serious nudge in the right direction.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.