Consumer electronics Obsolescence and E-waste: A Lecture

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What is the role for design?

This was a lecture done by Miles Park, a visiting guest to Nottingham Trent University from the University of New South Wales in Australia.

He showed a number of interesting projects that were being worked on at his university and from around the world, with examples of products that are trying to buck the trend and increase product longevity through various means.

He talks of Moore’s law:

‘The observation made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented.’

He backs this up by saying mentioning another quote by Kurzweil, cited in Slade 2006:197.

‘if the automobile industry had made as much progress in the past fifty years, a car would cost a hundredth of a cent and go faster than the speed of light’

This is something interesting to consider, because the technology and computer industry has ballooned like no other, the rapid growth and advances make it hard for us as designers to keep up with, or be at the forefront of. It also poses the problems of sustainability when products that are better are produced every year.


The second thing that really interested me was the hype curve. I had seen it before but it is interesting to see other peoples take on the diagram and where the future lies for different technologies.



The statement is that all technologies go through this cycle on introduction to the media and market. It is interesting for me, for technologies such as 3d printing, which have been through the mass hype stage and are in the beginnings of productivity, but have still some time to go. I would consider it to be in the beginning of the ‘slope of enlightenment’ but I am sure others have different opinions.

Image source:

It is interested in the scope of lecture to consider, that this cycle is very indicative of our throwaway society, because a lot of technologies pass through this cycle but do not make it all the way. 3D tv’s are one technology that I feel is one of these. Mass hype surround their coming, but now they have faded as a technology that is not considered very important for the average consumer any more (see, and 4K tv’s are the new thing that is coming.

Throwaway Society

Obsolescence is something that has been talked about a lot throughout the last 20 years and there is tonnes of journal and studies on the matter.  Miles talks of perceived obsolescence, designed into products. The quote:

‘instil in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little
better, a little sooner than is necessary” 

Brook Stevens cited in Heskett 2003: 4

The notion that designers or business build in a notion as this sits contrary to what we as consumers would want, or is it? As a society in the modern ages, we always look for bigger and better, a lot of people like that, but I would argue it just leads to an unsustainable future.


He moves on to talk about E-waste. It is the largest growing waste stream of all and continues to grow at 3 to 5% a year. The vast majority is exported to Asia and most to China. Lots of the waste is valuable from electronic products and could be re-used but it often difficult to achieve this. He showed pictures of old CRT tv’s with the ray tube.These are often scavenged for the copper parts inside because there is lots more value to this than any other part of the product. The statistics also remind of the vast dependancy on Asia and China our supply chains are, along with dealing with all the waste we produce.

He also quotes:

A tonne of discarded mobile phones (without batteries) can yield 300
grams of Gold – a far greater yield than the most efficient gold mine
(Hagelüken 2010).


Gold ore yields
> Motherboards = 200g/t
> Mobile phones (no batt) = 300g/t
> Mining = ±5g/t

From an efficiency outlook, it presents good business sense, but what about the ease at which gold is removed from the mobile phone or device? I do not think this process is as easy.

Designing for long life

  • Durability – Improving products in terms of their quality of construction/upgrade-ability. His precedent was a piggyback radio that attaches itself to an existing older radio to provide DAB, a much more modern radio service.
  • Design for access i.e. easy to tear apart and fix – RESTART and other community projects ai,ed at teaching people how to repair their products are becoming bigger and bigger.
  • Emotional attachment – Aim to create products that people get attached to and therefore are reluctant to get rid of, and take better care of. I find this a really interesting area for me to explore. How can this be achieved? – Customising products? Involving users in creation of products?



For me the biggest problem with most of the considerations for designing for longer life is that the economic argument is completely at odds with the design argument.

How can we as designers justify designing something to last longer if business want to increase sales and make money? The idea of a product that lasts longer will surely have an adverse affect on sales. The extreme example being the mobile phone market.

However could it make sense for an individual/small business? Is there ways of taking this strategy and building it into a successful business?

Could emotional attachment to products counteract this negative economic notion in some way?

I will need to look more into these ideas.

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