New ‘Story of Stuff’ video reminds us to think twice before buying new gadgets

by Chris O’Brien, San Jose Mercury News, November 28, 2010.

In the opening moments of the new Web video “The Story of Electronics,” I found myself nodding in recognition as host Annie Leonard held up a tangled mess of electronic gadget chargers. Lurking in my basement at home is a similar monstrosity of unused chargers that has grown ever larger as various devices have come and gone.

But I hadn’t given that sad collection of neglected wires much thought until Leonard pointed out something that should have been obvious. That clump of wires is no accident; it’s intentional. It’s emblematic of the wasteful mentality that drives the electronics industry to design products to quickly become obsolete.

Combine that design philosophy with our lust for the latest bright, shiny new thing, and the result is a startling increase in electronic waste that is contributing to health and environmental problems around the world.

“It’s not just bad luck,” Leonard says in the video. “It’s bad design. I call it ‘design for the dump.’ ”

The message of the video is simple but powerful. And it arrives just in time for the season of consumer gluttony.

As consumers, we are buying and trashing way too many consumer electronic gadgets. Even worse, Leonard says, companies encourage that pattern by making products that break down quickly and are too expensive to repair.

If you have ever had a DVD player break, you know exactly what this looks like. Take it to a repair shop, and the cost of getting it fixed

is more than the cost of buying a new one. So you buy the new one, right? But more likely than not, that old one is going to end up in a dump, probably overseas. Same for your cell phone, iPod and so on.

“The Story of Electronics” is the latest in a series of videos that began two years ago with a 20-minute video called “The Story of Stuff.” That video, a powerful critique of our consumer culture, became an unlikely viral sensation that was watched more than 12 million times. It mixed Leonard’s plain-spoken style with some basic animation created in collaboration with Free Range Studios of Berkeley.

That success has turned Leonard, a 46-year-old Berkeley resident, into an unlikely Internet celebrity. She had spent most of her adult life researching waste issues and advocating for stronger environmental laws, something that involved spending a lot of time exploring garbage dumps around the world. Not the most glamorous path to fame and fortune.

After the success of “Stuff,” Leonard created a nonprofit organization called “The Story of Stuff Project” that now has five full-time employees and is funded by foundation grants and individual donations raised online.

She also wrote a “Stuff” book and developed a curriculum that’s being used by hundreds of schools. And she made several sequels that explored the wasteful creation and consumption patterns around products such as cosmetics and bottled water.

When trying to figure out what product to tackle next, Leonard said electronics was an easy choice.

“It’s the fastest-growing and most toxic product out there,” Leonard said when we talked by phone on Wednesday. “I’ve traveled the world and looked at a lot of dumps. And electronics is one of the grossest things you’ll find in there.”

To make the video, Leonard teamed up with the San Francisco-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which leads 30 environmental and health organizations pushing for stronger electronics recycling laws. The term “takeback” refers to the idea that any company that makes a product would be legally and financially responsible for its disposal after a consumer is done with it.

Take-back laws would hit companies where it hurts: the bottom line. If companies feel that pinch, the hope is that they will design products that last longer and contain less toxic material to make them cheaper to discard.

“We can’t shop our way out of this,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the coalition. “We really need the companies to do better in terms of providing us some truly green electronics.”

Instead, what we have is an industry that generates millions of tons of e-waste each year, much of which gets shipped overseas to impoverished communities that scavenge it for valuable, but toxic, metals.

The Consumer Electronics Association, in a statement on its website, says it recognizes the importance of the e-waste issue, but says it would prefer a national policy, rather than a state-by-state approach.

“CEA believes that a national solution, which shares responsibility among all stakeholders and is based on sound science, is the most appropriate means to address this public policy challenge, primarily as a means to avoid an undesirable patchwork of state legislative mandates.”

As Leonard notes in the video, Moore’s Law means that processor speeds double every 18 months. Whatever gadget you buy today, there will be a faster, smarter, more powerful version in less than two years.

“Somehow the bosses of these genius designers got it all twisted up,” Leonard says in the video. “They seem to think Moore’s Law means every 18 months we have to throw out our old electronics and buy more.”

Before you go gadget shopping this season, ask yourself whether you can’t wait another year before upgrading to the latest iPhone or laptop or high-definition TV. That small sacrifice could deliver a powerful holiday message to electronics firms.

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