Retrofitting in a time of transition?

This week, Greenpeace featured some grim new footage showing children in Ghana breaking down and burning electronic waste (follow this link) Previously, the organisation has highlighted similar e-waste mountains in other parts of Africa, China and India and the ensuing health and environmental problems they create.

Standard obsolescence patterns will be behind the creation of much of this e-waste. This year, for example, analyst firm Gartner expects that approximately 180 million pcs, or 16 percent of the existing worldwide installed base, will be replaced. Only a portion of these devices will be given a prolonged life or be recycled in compliance with environmental standards though. Gartner predicts that some 35 million of these 'used' computers could end up as landfill. Add to this a mass of analog TVs provoked by the digital switchover in a number of countries, and you have case in which legislation may have potentially exacerbated the problem.

Meanwhile, much as biofuels have been touted as a 'solution' to dwindling oil reserves, so a new wave of eco-friendly consumer electronics are being advertised as an answer to cutting energy consumption. Whether or not this is yet having an impact on the rapidity of replacement/renewal decisions for electronic goods is hard to say, but it would be horribly ironic if the West's sudden preoccupation with green technologies began to exacerbate the flood of e-waste to developing nations.

Intellect, the trade association for the UK technology industry, stated in a report published earlier this year: “There is a difficult trade-off between retaining existing stock to extend its lifecycle, and upgrading earlier to new models in order to improve energy efficiency. This is particularly important when dealing with equipment
with high materials or energy intensity of manufacture and it reinforces the need to take life cycle aspects into consideration when making these decisions.” It added: “After all, people are familiar with 'retro-fitting' older buildings with additional insulation or double glazing to improve energy efficiency, and careful management can have a similar effect with electronic equipment.”

From TVs to basestations, cars to industrial equipment, a transition has been taking place towards more energy efficient designs. But during this transition period, there are challenges to be faced on several fronts. Whilst taking responsibility for equipment at end-of-life should be a given (though Greenpeace highlights two manufacturers that, apparently, do not – Philips and Sharp), who should shoulder responsibility for the energy consumption of equipment that is already in use? Is there an opportunity for manufacturers to tackle the energy consumption of existing devices, rather than use 'efficiency gains' as an excuse to ply their latest wares?

Intellect's point is a worthwhile one. But why stop at retrofitting equipment simply for energy efficiency purposes? Much as users of high end test equipment or expensive and long deployed military and industrial systems have become adept at managing lifecycle issues by retrofitting or shifting to modular designs, could the consumer industry be similarly persuaded along the retrofitting road? Could the 'retrofitting' concept become fashionable? Could such an approach, indeed, help to persuade a whole new generation of people to appreciate the inherent value of the technology they possess?

I grant that it's no simple task to persuade generations of people who have been sold products on the basis of what is wholly new, is better, to alter their behaviour. More difficult still is to make the business model fit. But faced with ever more pressing resource issues, it seems inevitable that these are questions that our industry will have to face. So with some of the brightest minds among us, where should we begin?

And if all this seems rather an insurmountable challenge, then perhaps we should go and consult the children who, having never experienced the benefits that technology can bring, are more familiar with the insides of a TV or a computer than our own.

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