US E-Waste and Planned Obsolescence by Elizabeth Lamb

The US’s growing electronic waste (e-waste) problem is partially attributable to one manipulative tactic employed by big technology companies. In order to increase sales, companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft engage “planned obsolescence” to encourage per capita turnover of cell phones, tablets, computers, increasing electronic consumption and waste in the process. Planned obsolescence can take form in many different ways, but it generally refers to a product that’s lifecycle has been intentionally shortened by the manufacturer.[1] For example, a company might manufacture a phone’s battery so that it breaks down earlier, a new software update might rely extensively on a new kind of hardware, or the manufacturer might make repairing the product so difficult or expensive that it makes more sense to buy a new product altogether.[2] In any case, the resulting spike in e-waste is a mounting threat to US safety, and the US should implement legislation that targets this practice.

Although e-waste only composed 2% of US landfills in 2019, it is responsible for over 70% of waste toxicity, and it is America’s fastest growing category of municipal waste.[3] Because the average American is rarely educated on the proper method for recycling or disposing of their old electronic devices, these devices often end up in landfills, which can have a host of negative consequences. Not only can improperly broken down devices emit chemicals hazardous to the health of those directly handling it, like landfill workers, but it also contributes to polluted air, groundwater, and soil which can affect the health of those living nearby.[4]

Even worse, the US currently has no formal federal legislation regulating e-waste. This is partially due to the fact that the US has traditionally exported up to 40% of its e-waste to other countries.[5] However, the waste landscape is changing quickly: China, a major waste importer, banned foreign waste shipments as of January 2018.[6] As the US must begin processing more waste domestically, it is increasingly important that proper regulations are set in place. Many solutions propose federally regulated e-waste recycling procedures – 25 out of 50 states have independent e-waste recycling policies, but a federal policy has yet to come to fruition.[7] While this is certainly a necessary step to mitigate the harmful effects of e-waste, I also propose regulations that target producer responsibility with regards to planned obsolescence.

This can be accomplished through two channels. First, although no laws exist in the US that stem planned obsolesce, the Consumer Product Safety Commission possesses the ability to enforce durability standards.[8] The Commission should enforce criteria establishing required device lifetime criteria so that individual devices last longer – for example, banning the pre-degradation of lithium phone batteries. Next, Congress should pass an act mandating a warranty on all electronic devices, which the Federal Trade Commission would regulate.[9] The existing authority on warranties, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act passed by Congress in 1975, only governs warranty language and its presentation of information.[10] However, the standard manufacturing warranty for any electronic device ranges from 60 days to a full year; Apple, which produces the majority of phones used in the US, currently offers a one-year warranty on each of its products.[11],[12] Congress should officially instate a minimum warranty length of 2 years for all electronic devices. By covering repair fees for an extended amount of time, the warranty will encourage customers to fix their devices rather than throwing them away for new ones. Because, for instance, the average IPhone lifespan is 4 years, this extended warranty will capture a greater period of malfunction so that consumers can hold onto their electronic devices for longer.[13] By simply extending product lifetimes by even just a quarter through the measures mentioned above, the US can massively reduce the amount of e-waste that pollutes the US.



[1] Vieville, Stephanie. “Is Obsolescence Planned For “Planned Obsolescence.” The Enhesa Globe, 2Q19,

[2] Ahmed, Syed. “The Global Cost of Electronic Waste.” The Atlantic, 29 September, 2016.

[3] Do Something.Org. “11 Facts About E-Waste.” Do Something.Org, 11, April 2015.

[4] Cho, Renee. “What Can We Do About the Growing E-waste Problem?” Earth Institute, Columbia University, 27 August 2018.

[5] LeBlanc, Rick. “E-Waste Recycling Facts and Figures.” The BalanceSmb, 14 January, 2020.

[6] Joyce, Christopher. “Where Will Your Plastic Trash Go Now That China Doesn’t Want It?” National Public Radio, 13, March 2019.

[7] Schulz, Jennifer. “Electronic Waste Recycling.” National Conference of State Legislatures.” 17, September 2019.

[8] “Planned Obsolescence.” n.d.

[9] “Planned Obsolescence.” n.d.

[10] Federal Trade Commission, “Businessperson’s Guide to Federal Warranty Law.” Federal Trade Commission. n.d.

[11] Avance, Rosemary. “Electronics Extended Warranties,” Consumer Affairs. 1, February 2018.

[12]O’Dea, S. “Share of Smartphone Sales in the US by Vendor 2016-2019.”  Statista. 17, October 2019.

[13] Rayome, Alison. “Here’s How Long Your iPhone Will Really Last.” TechRepublic, 5 March, 2018.

5 thoughts on “US E-Waste and Planned Obsolescence by Elizabeth Lamb

  1. A very informative read, Ellea! Two of the most shocking facts of this blog that caught me off guard were the toxicity/mass ratio of e-waste and China’s ban on importing foreign largely U.S. waste. It is alarming to see that trace amounts of e-waste are able to contribute to the bulk of toxicity across entire landfills even though many of the materials inside are already designated as “hazardous” waste according to the EPA. I agree with your strategy to target durability and warranty standards to combat planned obsolescence and the effects of e-waste. However, it seems to be a temporary fix that slows down the rate at which e-waste ends up in landfills or incinerators. It would be interesting to explore reuse and recycling strategies such as encouraging firms to increase their tech buyback programs and recycle more phones. I agree with you in forcing more responsibility onto the producers, especially given the current calls from the FTC, Congress, and DOJ to regulate big tech’s monopoly on several areas within the technology sector. Along with slowing the rate of e-waste generation and encouraging buybacks, it would intriguing to asess how successful the 25 out of 50 states policies surrounding e-waste recycling are at reducing e-waste. Finding the best policy and regulatory practices at the state-level and adapting them to the other 25 states would indubitably yield greater e-waste management. Really awesome blog post and it makes me want to keep a close eye on how the U.S. e-waste management progresses given China’s recent change.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful article, Ellea!

    This is such a frustrating problem because it feels so out of individuals’ control. While people can resist the temptation to buy a new device just because they want a newer version, there isn’t much one can do if their battery is no longer holding a charge or a software upgrade makes a device too slow to use. I think planned obsolescence is also complemented by marketing strategies. Making it seem like it’s essential to always have the newest devices creates a social pressure to continuously buy new products and devices, even if someone’s current device is still functional.

    You’ve made a very compelling argument for why e-waste is such a large issue and why it needs to be federally regulated. I think one big problem is that because e-waste is so toxic, recycling it can be a dangerous process that needs to be strictly regulated to ensure the safety of workers. I agree with your suggestions for increasing durability and extending device warranties. Both of these would increase the lifespan of products, thereby decreasing purchasing and decreasing the amount of material needing to be recycled. I think increasing the repairability of devices (and encouraging device repairs through methods such as extended warranties) would be a major improvement because it’s a shame to have to get rid of a whole device if only one part is broken.

  3. Awesome article! Your argument provides a great example of how an environmental problem can be solved using policy solutions that are typically thought of as outside the scope of environmental policy. By delving into warranty laws and how they affect tech companies’ abilities to create products with planned obsolescence, you have highlighted how environmental policy can exist in unexpected areas of policy, and can mutually benefit both the environment and the consumer. Speaking of consumers, I wonder what the role of “conscious consumerism” could be in this problem. Is this a situation in which consumers could play a meaningful role in forcing policy change at the federal level? If consumers could play a meaningful role in this problem, would policy change even be required to evoke change in how companies make products, or would consumers be effective at shifting the market toward longer lasting products independent of policy changes? One problem that was brought up in the blog is the lack of education about the harmful effects of e-waste on the environment, waste management workers, and those living near waste sites. The fact that while only 2% of all waste is e-waste, it is responsible for 70% of waste toxicity is crazy and something I had never heard before. Perhaps if there were more mainstream educational materials about e-waste, consumers could evoke the change necessary in the policy/economic spheres to lessen the severity of the problem.

  4. This is an excellent, thorough, and inventive response to the e-waste crisis! I vaguely knew this existed, and basically just dreaded the day when it overwhelmed us, because I didn’t know anything about how we would/should respond to it effectively, so this gave me hope that there are solutions! I really like how you use existing legislation as solutions, at least for planned obsolescence, making it much more feasible than a lot of the other policy recommendations of blogs, while also proposing new legislation that would tackle the waste more directly. I think federally mandated guidelines and guarantees to make products last longer would be of enormous help, along with a more focused recycling program. One of the worst things about this crisis is the absolute havoc it has wreaked upon developing countries, where we extract their resources or dump our waste on them, fueling brutal wars over control of rare earth mines and potentially poisoning thousands, so anything that can be done to stem that problem is vital. The fact that Apple has gotten away with their planned obsolescence for iphones being exposed without penalty, and is probably continuing to allow software updates to slow down phones, is absolutely criminal, and the U.S. government’s lack of response has been shameful. Upon doing a bit of research I learned Italy fined Apple and Samsung for this practice, so hopefully this discourages it in the future and other governments take up the mantle of consumer protection.

  5. Thanks for the great article on a pertinent topic, Elizabeth! I know that as American consumers and college students, we frequently feel the pressure to upgrade to the latest phone model, wireless earbuds, unnecessary tablet, or some other technology that has been cleverly marketed to us as a necessity. You outlined the problem clearly: the e-waste that was once easily “out of sight, out of mind” is now a headache for the US to deal with. I recently watched a documentary titled “Death by Design” that explores the innate toxicity of electronics production and destruction–Santa Clara county, the heart of Silicon Valley, has the greatest number of Superfund sites in any American county due to the toxins that were produced and buried in the initial tech boom. It’s hard for us to imagine because we’ve been sold the idea that going virtual is “green” and clean, but the truth is that the entire process from production to destruction of electronics involve highly toxic and hazardous chemicals. There are vast human health and environmental pollution concerns associated with the process. I think addressing the root of the problem and changing corporate strategy away from planned obsolescence is a fantastic strategy. Though companies will obviously be resistant to anything that might detract from expected returns, this reduction in scale would essentially internalizes some of the costs associated with polluted waterways, health impacts, and resource mining in this process.

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