The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 9, 2010

The Story of Electronics: Planned Obsolescence Sucks

Story of ElectronicsOne of the strategies I use to acquire less new plastic is to fix stuff that breaks instead of replacing it with new gadgets and to use resources like Craigslist, Freecycle, and thrift stores to get it secondhand. So I get really irritated when despite my best efforts, I find that my broken gadgets are not designed to be repaired. I’ve ranted about the HP Monitor and the digital scale that I tried to have fixed. I bragged about working with my dad to fix my old hair dryer, but lamented the fact that it wasn’t made to be repaired and that only the fact that my dad is an electronics technician allowed us to open it up and replace the broken part.

Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff Project in conjunction with the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and Center for Environmental Health have just released a new video today: The Story of Electronics. And it explains in 7 minutes the entire toxic life-cycle of gadgets designed for the dump and what we as consumers can do about it.

What you can do:

Buy less new stuff!

Check out the action page for links on responsible e-waste recycling, buying a greener computer, and a whole lot more.

My laptop has finally died, and I’m going to be checking out these resources to figure out how to get the most responsible replacement. I’m a little hesitant to go the Craigslist route this time because I require a robust machine that can handle my video editing and communications needs. Until I find the right solution, I’ll just wait…

Read my interview with Annie Leonard here.

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Your laptop most likely failed because of planned obsolescence. There is really only one responsible thing to do. Buy the really big fix.


Beth Terry

Hi, Michael. I ended up trading it in for a secondhand Sony Vaio. Here’s my post about my current laptop: But what is the Really Big Fix? Are the instructions posted online? That page advertises it but doesn’t explain how to do it.


Hi Beth & Terry. The Really Big Fix is a discovery I made. It was discovered out of necessity as I was running a computer repair business in the East Bay Area of California in the 1990’s. Somehow, and I’m not exactly sure how, I began unknowingly spreading a undetectable computer virus or malicious code to my customers. The reason this happened is probably because a Chinese company sold me a non-microsoft DOS which was represented as a Microsoft DOS. You know that old Microsoft monopolization thing. (US V Microsoft) There is some connection to the floppy controller defect which… Read more »


There is a real fact in the matter of electronics: Once they are used they get obsolete and supposedly recycled which is not true. Electronics cannot be recycled. They may be repaired, re-used but never recycled. So, would you like to have a new Pentium II again? I have read an interesting article from Green-Talk dot com where they show an interesting video about the ugly side of recycling electronics. I even made a pair of comments there. Worth reading. However, this all our fault. We consumer demand more and more. In 10 years our less this computers we are… Read more »


This was really timely for me. I recently broke my cell phone [1] and need to find a replacement. I’m either going to get a refurbished phone or buy a used one from Craigslist.

Sprint and AT&T have refurbished phones available. Other carriers probably do, too!

[1] …after dropping it dozens of times over 5 years, and once leaving it a snowbank for a week! I hope my next phone lasts like that one did! I called it “the beast”.


In the US, electronics recycling is done by prisoners under unsafe conditions: Inmates and employees at 10 federal prisons were exposed to toxic metals and other hazardous substances while processing electronic waste for recycling, a four-year investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general found.


Great! Glad you had the chance to meet the filmmaker. I can’t wait to see the film either! I was born and raised in Rio, so I’m anticipating that Wasteland will touch me deeply.


Hi Beth,
Just wondering if you’ve heard of this film:


I love that Annie Leonard, her videos are great.
I couldn’t agree more with the “buy less stuff” it really is a struggle even when I don’t want to. I am more ingrained by the media than I want to admit unfortunately.


Thanks, Ivy – that’s what I was going to say. We had to go buy a digital converter, which is another electronic thingummy, but it wasn’t expensive and it means we’re still using the TV that is i-am-not-sure-how-old (we traded one we found on the corner to a friend for one she had in her barn…back in 2002. I think the TV is from about 1995? It is decidedly not High Def) During the transition PBS ran public service announcements showing a digital converter running new programming on a black and white set from the ’50s. Thanks everyone for the… Read more »


It also helps to research and be informed–Rob commented and mentioned the “HD” rules, which I’m afraid to say, aren’t accurate. The TV signal switched to digital, NOT HD. Most TVs did work on digital–mine was from the early 1990s and it would have been fine. Even if you had a TV older than that, you could get a converter to make it work; really it mostly affected those using an antennae. You did NOT need to buy a new TV. However, if you went to a store they would try to tell you that it was a switch to… Read more »

Nick Palmer

I think it’s time to call? for a longevity/durability tax on consumer products. Short lived/ breakable/ non- repairable/fashionable stuff should have a big eco-tax on it – the proceeds are used to “anti-tax” long-lived, repairable, recyclable classic products thereby making them cheaper despite the increased engineering necessary for durability


Yay – it’s been released. We’ve been waiting for this one.

Melissa @ HerGreenLife

We’re nursing along my husband’s 6 1/2 year-old laptop — certainly not the fastest, fanciest thing in the world, but functional for our needs at this point. We’re also considering a digital kitchen scale for more precise and accurate measurements when baking, though I’m not convinced it’s necessary. We’re made it this long without one! Beth — Don’t be afraid of Apple/Mac. Fortunately, I had to learn my way around an Apple in my last job. I don’t know how they used to be, but they’re very user-friendly these days. If it’s in our budget, I plan to get an… Read more »


Been on this wavelength all my life. We need to realize that this will only happen when companies are required by law to make repairable/recyclable products. The government can and should require standardization — making those chargers work with any device, for example. How many people realize that we would never have had television if the government did not impose the standard? Sadly, any such law is labeled as “regulation” (once upon a time recognized as necessary). And far too many politicians (read: Republicans) after years of gutting regulations, want even less, not more, so that their rich friends in… Read more »


Learning so much. I wonder if we could make owning a re-pairable computer “cool”, then the cost wouldn’t be such a thing. Somehow, many would find a way to afford it.


Electronics are quite reliable and the part that causes a problem is usually easy to clean or fix. In the case of DVD players, well over half that go to a landfill can be opened and cleaned to working order within 10 inexperienced minutes. Most Americans don’t believe they can repair anything themselves–they’re wrong but will never know it.

Leanne daharja

Our strategy – don’t buy it. We don’t have a flat screen TV, iPhones, blue ray DVD player, tivo or any of that junk. My laptop is now four years old, and it was bought secondhand. I used to use Palm Pilots years ago, then switched back to a good, old-fashioned paper diary – easy to recycle – I just shove it on the compost at the end of the year! Truth is, we don’t need all the rubbish that is dumped at us. If you didn’t need it ten years ago, do you really need it now? Probably not.… Read more »

Linda Currie

Go Annie! We are past of era of allowing companies to profit by polluting. This practice must end and we (all of us with any amount of awareness) must be responsible for ending it.


In highschool my teacher tought us how to repair things, I remember taking iron apart and fixing it before I graduated.(over 20years ago in Ukraine).. The iron we have now (Canada) – if it breaks – there is no way of fixing it. I still think fondly about TV’s when I was growing up, if it stops working – hit it on the top couple of times, if that does not work – call repair man. I am amazed at how fast technology is changing… how can one keep up with all the new “I”things? We still have old RCA… Read more »

Judy Levin

I totally agree with you about trying to extend the life of your electronic gadgets as long as possible. And buying a refurbished product can be a great way to save money and reduce the environmental impacts of electronics. Redemtech, the donor of the refurbished computer in our website giveaway, has a great statistic about the value of reuse: Reusing just one computer saves enough energy to power a household for 8 months and reduces greenhouse gases equal to removing a car from road for 6 months. Check it out at: The Center for Environmental Health’s website also has… Read more »


As an electrical engineer, I think there are two sides to this story. The first side is that electronics companies need to make more durable devices, which people can service themselves, and they also need to have a plan to deal with the end-of-life waste. The second side is the same as everything else we consume – we always want MORE and BETTER. We don’t want an old computer, we want a shiny new computer. And so as consumers we are driving ‘disposable’ electronics. The other issue that I see, again, is not unique to electronics, and that’s price. Making… Read more »


Sigh- back in the day we had TV repair men who came to our house and fixed the TV… Now it is cheaper, and “easier” to buy a new one. And our government didn’t help by making TV’s unuseable (The “HD” rules) so now we have millions of unuseable TV’s… what to do with them? I partly blame the consumer— If there wasn’t demand for new stuff, nobody would make it. Just the other day, I was at Costco, where I bought (a couple of years ago) My flat screen TV. 2 years later they have a much better, 3-D… Read more »

green girl in wisconsin

This issue frustrates me to no end! One solution we’ve found is to opt out of the “bells and whistles” because then products have fewer things going wrong. Another is to opt out of electronics altogether–do I need gadgets to perform every function under the sun? Or can I be wise and selectively purchase those that multi-task. I’m looking forward to watching Annie Leonard’s latest work now…she’s brilliant.

Condo Blues

Have you considered having someone build you a computer to your specs? My Husband and I work in IT and built our first computer as a professional development exercise. Once we realized that we could each have a machine to our personal and professional specs with a much longer upgrade path (you just don’t get that with a prebuilt machine, even a desktop) we haven’t looked back. Granted a desktop isn’t as convient as a laptop. However, I’m very short and I need to pay attention to ergonomics when I work on a computer/at a desk or I will get… Read more »


This is another reason why my husb and I like to support Apple products. No they are not perfect, but over the last few years have taken great strides to make their products more recyclable especially in using aluminum cases. Other than the circuit boards, which have their own issues with chemicals, the aluminum, glass and other metals can be completely recycled.