Between the middle of December and the first week in January, a feeding frenzy takes place. Everyone bites off a chunk of new technology and disposes the old. We constantly want the latest and greatest products, just to make our lives more convenient and efficient.
With that, however, comes a big responsibility that many of us tend to shirk. How do we dispose of the old items? So much can be recycled, yet only a few percent of all the reusable material ever makes it back into society. Some of that is due to product failure and the inability to repair broken devices. An additional, but thankfully small, percentage comes from poorly designed products that never worked right in the first place. The largest percentage by far comes from devices that have been superceded and can't be upgraded, and thus aren't as desirable.
In some ways, I feel this reflects poorly on the engineering community. Have we really done our jobs? Or have we made too many shortcuts to satisfy the here-and-now with little or no regard for the future? Products designed for limited lifetimes end up as dangerous fodder for landfills because of undesirable chemicals and materials used in their manufacture. Old CRTs often have lead shielding to block X-rays. Batteries contain elements that could hurt the environment. And many outdated products use materials that will take millennia to decompose.
New design techniques, improved modular design concepts, and advanced materials technologies should let us design products that can be upgraded, disassembled, and recycled with much less effort than ever before. Yet many of these solutions come at a high cost to the manufacturer, and at a higher price to us as consumers.
But can we afford to ignore the challenge if we want to keep our planet green and livable for generations to come? Only a few cents more for every dollar spent to manufacture a product could go far in reducing what ends up in the landfills. Just some extra attention to details could find potential flaws that prevent a good product idea from becoming successful. Improved design tools will help by allowing designers to "get it right the first time," or at least check designs more thoroughly.
Sometimes technology itself becomes the culprit. Dysfunctional products often come about when designers try to overleverage a technology and ask it to do more than it is capable of doing. Now, I'm not saying we should forgo the latest technology. But through the use of ecologically conscious design approaches, we can and should build products that can be disassembled, repaired, recycled, and upgraded. If we don't, future generations may have to live on large electronic scrap heaps.
Send me your ideas. We'll collect them and put them on our web site.