"Story of Stuff" Crusade Takes on E-Waste and Planned Obsolescence

By Jennifer Welsh | November 9, 2010 4:18 pm

The Story of Electronics has made its debut today (teaser above), following the form of the original Story of Stuff video in 2007. The Story of Stuff, written and narrated by Annie Leonard, created waves of discussion about the environment and consumption in classrooms, homes, and workplaces around the country.

She [created the movie], she said, after tiring of traveling often to present her views at philanthropic and environmental conferences. She attributes the response to the video’s simplicity. “A lot of what’s in the film was already out there,” Ms. Leonard said, “but the style of the animation makes it easy to watch. It is a nice counterbalance to the starkness of the facts.” [New York Times]

The new electronics chapter takes a step beyond the original video’s take on the manufacturing process and consumerism to explain the concept of planned obsolescence, the idea that our electronics are being “designed for the dump”–that is, to be cheaply replaceable as quickly as possible. The video makes a point that these cheap electronics come with hidden costs–to factory workers, people in unsafe electronics recycling facilities, and to the environment.

The Story Of Electronics, today, is a tragedy. Its main characters include: executives in charge of consumer electronics companies who allow their designers to use toxic materials and worse; consumers who accept built-in obsolescence and cannot control their appetites for everything from smart phones to high-def TVs; and citizens of developing nations living or working around e-waste, their land and water polluted by PVC, mercury, solvents, flame retardants as a result of another country’s consumer habits. [Tech Crunch]

The story’s solution for this toxic mess? Make products that aren’t toxic, that last longer, and that have replaceable parts. Companies can be encouraged to make these kinds of products by laws that force them to take back obsolete or broken devices and dispose of them correctly, Leonard argues. The video advocates for strict “product take back” laws; such laws have already been enacted in some European and Asian countries, and are beginning to pop up in U.S. cities and states.

The full video is embedded below, and hit up The Story of Stuff Project’s website or YouTube channel for more information and other videos including The Story of Cosmetics and The Story of Bottled Water.

Related content:
80beats: America’s Electronic Waste Is Polluting the Globe
80beats: Government Report Slams EPA for Lax Regulation of Electronic Waste
Discoblog: 2010 Olympic Medals Made From E-Waste

Video: Youtube.com/StoryofStuffProject

  • RK

    Anti capitalist, non-scientific bias with a socialist message. What is this doing in a supposedly scientific magazine/news service?

    GLOBAL TOXIC EMERGENCY! That’s not alarmist…btw, it seems that human life expectancy in countries where there is actual property rights and rule of law (not rule of men) have increasing life expectancies. Seems that would be on the decline in a global toxic emergency.

    SEND THE TOXIC WASTE TO THE CEO’s! Those evil CEO’s, making products people want, inexpensively so even people of limited wealth can have a cell phone and TV….

    EXERT more government control…somehow that causes innovation, according to the video…

    Most of the developing countries where the “recycling” occurs are authoritarian, poor countries with no freedom, few property rights, and no rule of law. That’s not a company’s fault, nor responsibility to fix. Such countries will always be poor, and toxic, regardless of our “e-waste”.

  • Trevor

    Terrible video. It makes a ton of claims and backs them up with, at best, some anecdotal evidence.

  • Wendy

    Holy crap…. Are you two previous posters for real??? Can you really keep a straight face and tell me this isn’t the way our world works?

  • scott

    This is how I think it will play out…as a whole, too many people and countries dont get it and humans will not make any dramatic shifts in anything (pollution, manufacturing, water conservation, etc, etc) until things get so bad and they are FORCED to. Like building a multi million dollar waste water plant that costs government and the population hundreds of millions of dollars…they wont do it until it starts to just ruin the lives (quality of life) for everyone in the affected area and people finally get off their butts and demand it done. Usually things have to get dire before action is taken.

    When things get dire, things will get done, and done well most likely, too late or not. But…it wont happen, until its really bad (I am talking large scale changes, not little green feel good projects here and there). Thats sort of the way its always been anyway….as long as everything seems somewhat normal and the masses cant really see it or smell it or can still ignore it, they will not want to change their ways, pay for it, etc.

  • Katharine

    I see most of you haven’t heard of conflict minerals.

    Toxic minerals I agree is suspect, but the planned obsolescence isn’t. We ransack our supplies of raw materials buying shoddy crud because businesses want a short-term profit.

  • Dante The Canadian

    Companies won’t make longer lasting products because that’s bad for business. If you build products that last out of good materials, that will cost more money to make and thus cost more money to buy for the consumer. The payback for the consumer is they pay more but get a product that lasts longer. That’s good for the consumer but bad for businesses. If people don’t need to replace their TV’s, Cellphones, Cars, Blackberries, Computers, watches, radios etc etc etc people won’t bother to BUY them. If people aren’t buying products, then businesses won’t need as many people to make these products. If people aren’t working to make products then people aren’t making money to buy anything.

    See the vicious circle? The trick for the world is to continue to make ‘disposable’ products but to do so in a more environmentally responsible manner. No one has really been able to figure that trick out yet, but when they do be assured they will sell it.

  • Jennifer Welsh

    Thanks for reading and commenting all,

    I know we all have opinions on the subject, I’m glad you’ve all gotten a chance to air yours. I know the video is an advocacy video, and is expressing a view point. This is definitely a topic that should be discussed, though.

    I just wanted to say that while the movie above is making points to advocate for one specific point of the issue, her points are backed up by data. It would probably take thousands of pages of reports to explain and back up all of her points, and no one would want to watch THAT movie.

    Its funny, writing about this stuff really reminds me of that movie, Idiocracy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiocracy). Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point, though.



Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar