Project Ideas: Planned Obsolescence & E-Waste

This first blog post is aimed towards providing a comprehensive progress account of the individual Cyberculture research project due at the end of the semester. To beginning, a topic of interest has to be chosen. A topic that interested me was planned obsolescence and electronic waste, or e-waste. These are topics that no one really thinks of and have become automatic responses. Let us back up a few steps. What is planned obsolescence? What is e-waste?

Planned obsolescence “occurs where the design of technologies is subsumed within the discourses of manufacturing, consumption and the logic of planned obsolescence in which the product or parts are intended to fail, degrade or under perform over time” (Moore, 2009 Digital Games Distribution: The Presence of the Past and the Future of Obsolescence).

This is a business or marketing strategy, where the obsolescence of the product is planned and built into the production, distribution, and advertising practices. The goal is to create consumer “need” for a newer, updated version. An easy example is the iPhone. Apple comes out with a new iPhone every year.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 4.08.01 PM

(Costello, 2016 When Does The New iPhone Come Out?).

Why is that? It is because they know people are looking to upgrade their devices when they get the chance. So, they release a new phone every year, usually in the beginning of the fall, advertising their sleek new model and all the new features. This also gets at the idea of stylistic obsolescence, which Apple is guilty of.

Stylistic obsolescence is simply the idea that fashion and styles change over time and therefore change products and consumption habits. “Stylistic obsolescence is differentiated from mechanical or technological obsolescence as the deliberate supersedence of products by more advanced designs, better production techniques and other minor innovations” (Look back at Moore, 2016).

So how does planned obsolescence relate to cell phone contracts and providers? It used to be that customers were on 2 year contracts and got discounted phones along with their plan. Now times are changing. Companies like Verizon and AT&T are getting rid of their contracts and consumers just sign up for a monthly plan, but they have to purchase their device on their own. So the consumer could  save more money by holding on to their phone for a longer period of time (Luckerson, 2016).

However, Apple makes it so enticing to upgrade because they have upgrade plans, where you make payments on a phone monthly and have the option to upgrade every 12 months.

But how long do most people actually hold on to their phone before upgrading? According to a Gallup survey “54% of smartphone users say they will upgrade their phone ‘only when it stops working or becomes totally obsolete’… 44% percent of smartphone users say they will upgrade their model ‘as soon as your cellphone provider allows it, usually every two years’… and “A mere 2% say they upgrade their phone ‘when a new model is released, usually about every year'” (Swift, 2015).



These results were actually very surprising to me. I was shocked by the percent of people that upgrade every year, I thought that number was going to be higher. I had this perception because whenever a new iPhone comes out, it seems that everyone is waiting for its release and order it during pre-sale. iPhone 7 Plus sold out before hitting shelves (Sydney Morning Herald, 2016).

Apple broke tradition and did not release first weekend sales to the public. Thus making consumers wonder if Apple iPhone sales (a critical product for Apple) are leveling off.

Now on to the second term I mentioned earlier. E-waste. What is it? It is any electronic that is disposed of, such as computers, phones, refrigerators, televisions, air conditioning units, and so on. Items like these are disposed of at an increasing rate and are usually done so using unsafe methods not only for the people trying to dispose of it, but also for the environment. According to Jacopo Ottaviani, “Only a small part of this waste – about 15.5% in 2014 – is recycled with methods that are efficient and environmentally safe” (Ottaviano, 2015).

The United States is the largest producers of e-waste per person. While other developing countries are producing e-waste at an increasing rate.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 11.56.02 PM

Click here to explore the Aljazeera interactive webpage.

Many of the electronics that are disposed of still have value, either because they are still functioning or because they contain materials inside that can be harvested and sold.

Therefore, these electronics are shipped to developing countries like Ghana. However, Ghana is experiencing economic growth and its capital Accra is a center for receiving, recycling, and disposing of e-waste (Ottaviano, 2015, interactive page). This area is filled with repair shops and second hand markets, which try and use these electronics to their full potential. Yet there is too much e-waste and Accra has become a dumpsite for electronics. Here the poorest classes of Accra live and scavenge for materials to sell. Many young boys collect electric cables and burn them for the copper inside to sell for a small amount of money. “The fumes released from this is harmful for their health and the environment. The toxic fumes rise into the sky, poison the air and then settle on the soil and on the vegetables sold at the market,” explains an environmental activist from Accra.

E-waste Hell | SBS News

The video here, made by environmental journalists, displays the conditions in Ghana, the health of the people, and uncovers how e-waste gets into the country. Countries are suppose to dispose of the electronics themselves, but instead they ship them to developing countries like Ghana. However it is illegal to ship hazardous e-waste to developing countries without a permit. So how do they get there? They are falsely declared as “working secondhand goods”(SBS, 2011, E-Waste Hell).

So now that we know what e-waste and planned obsolescence is, what do we do about it? Just continue to do what we do? Or try and defeat planned obsolescence and reduce e-waste? How do we even go about stopping it? Do people want to stop it?

We live an a time where technology is all around us. There is practically nothing humans do anymore that does not involve some type of technology. Whether it is something as everyday as watching the television, or using our phones for communication or GPS.

We are so accustomed to using our devices and other technologies every minute of everyday, most of us could not even imagine going a single day without our phone or computer. These technologies have become a part of us and have shaped our lives and helped us make connections to places and people all over the world, and with the help of technology all of this can be accessed at our finger tips.

I think as I continue to do research on this topic I will narrow it down and focus of specific case studies that have already tried different ways to reduce e-waste and try to think of new ways myself. I would also like to share and educate others who might not know about this topic and hopefully encourage others to reduce their e-waste. To do this I am considering creating a YouTube video that discusses this topic and offer solutions for this problem. I have some previous experience making short videos, so hopefully making another video will increase my skills and continue to improve as I make more videos. So stay tuned for the next blog post where I will share more research and possible solutions that I find!


Anon, 2016. “Apple iPhone 7 Plus sold out before hitting shelves.” The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: <; [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

Anon, 2016. “How to Buy a New Phone Without a Two-Year Contract.” Time. Available at: <; [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

Anon, 2017. “iPhone Upgrade Program – Apple.” iPhone Upgrade Program – Apple. Available at: <; [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

Costello, S., 2016. “Don’t Buy a New iPhone Before Reading This.” Lifewire. Available at: <; [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

D.S.B.S., 2011. “E-Waste Hell.” YouTube. Available at: <; [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

Moore, C.L., 2009. “Digital Games Distribution: The Presence of the Past and the Future of Obsolescence.”  M/C Journal. Available at: <; [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

Ottaviani, J., 2017. “E-waste Republic.” E-waste Republic. Available at: <; [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

Richter, F., 2015. “Infographic: iPhone Users Most Likely to Upgrade Every Two Years.”  Statista Infographics. Available at: <; [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

Swift, A., 2015. “Americans Split on How Often They Upgrade Their Smartphones.” Available at: <; [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

2 thoughts on “Project Ideas: Planned Obsolescence & E-Waste

  1. I think this topic is super interesting and extremely important in our consumerist society. We’re happy to just take take take, but what is the real cost behind always upgrading?

    I really like the point you make when you say ‘How do we even go about stopping it? Do people want to stop it?’ Because generally when you present someone with an issue like e-waste and tell them all the horrible facts behind it, the majority of people would agree and say that it’s a huge issue and that they want to stop it. But when we implement these changes (when people can’t/stop upgrading, or we have to change our usage habits) people aren’t that impressed.

    Sadly I think this is a situation where the technology has to change, because as we’ve already seen with so many other issues, it’s much harder to change people’s lifestyles and habits.

    Perhaps an angle you could take, it to look at the metals and minerals they use in building the phones. These also have vast environmental and socio-political impacts. Because maybe e-waste could become a thing of the past if we decide to alter what we put into our phones in the first place.

    And I’m sure you’ll come across it in your research but the idea of the FairPhone is super interesting. An ethically produced phone. But again, are people willing to pay to ensure their phone is sourced ethically? Or do they even care?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, exactly! It is difficult to get people to change what they are used. Thanks for your links! I’ve explored them and I did not know that Apple had a recycling program. I will definitely be incorporating that in my next post. And also the fair phone. Another student showed me “Phonebloks”, which has a similar idea. Thank you for your comment! (:


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