What Is Planned Obsolescence and How to Fight It: Reduce Your Waste

We’ve all had this happen to us. You buy something that works perfectly fine and in the second the warranty runs out, the product just breaks down. Don’t you just hate when that happens? What about the new smartphone you bought that doesn’t work anymore with your old charger? Whether we believe it or not, some of these frustrating problems are caused on purpose when product designers practice planned obsolescence.

What Is Planned Obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence is a phenomenon which occurs when designers deliberately create a product to have a limited life span. It’s usually a shorter life span that’s supposed to last enough to develop a customer’s lasting need.

At the same time, these products are designed in such a way that the customer is convinced of their quality, even though he will have to replace it eventually. This way, when the product fails, the customer will feel compelled to buy another one – one that’s up to date and comes with its own accessories.

Most of these products don’t go obsolete all of a sudden. However, dealers and other retailers (marketing home warranties, consumer electronics, and appliances) are always changing the way they sell you a product. Their efforts are meant to keep you engaged with the brand way past your initial purchase.



Deliberate Planned Obsolescence

But not all planned obsolescence is bad for you as a customer. This practice is deliberately and openly built into some products simply for safety reasons. Use by and sell by dates on foods, for instance, offer the retailer and the customer a necessary guide. Even though the product won’t instantly go bad the next day after the ‘use by’ date, it still helps you figure out when a food product is at its best.

Soft drinks bottles and disposable cutlery are some other examples of deliberate planned obsolescence. These products are manufactured cheaply on purpose and designed to be used the one time. To make them safer for the environment, they’re often manufactured from biodegradable polylactide (PLA).

Whether you’re just now realizing this or not, the idea of planned obsolescence has been around for some time. For generations, people have come across it in their everyday life. Below you’ll find 5 examples of planned obsolescence and how you can avoid it.

1. College Textbooks

Even if you graduated a while back, you probably still remember how much you had to pay for your books. Astronomical amounts of money came out of your pocket even if you were buying them in a used condition! The things, the information didn’t change that drastically from one year to the next (in most subjects), yet the publishers printed a new textbook either way. They did everything they could not to be out of a job: Switched chapters around, subtract or add new diagrams, include CDs that you could register just one time, and many other tricks.

How to avoid it: Thankfully, you no longer have to be a slave to college bookstores and their astounding prices. In the meantime, students have wised up and figure out how to get their required texts without paying a fortune. Going on Craigslist or Amazon for used schoolbooks is a pretty affordable option. You can always rent your textbooks if you want to avoid the bill. Look for student forums in your campus; they can usually help you with the textbooks you really must have.

2. Light Bulbs

There are some museums that still exhibit Thomas Edison’s early light bulbs. Still glowing and still in perfect condition. Does it surprise you they’re still going strong after more than 100 years? It’s because we’re used to having to change our bulbs every 12 months – or even sooner than that. Manufacturers may have had a light-bulb moment when they realized that light bulbs that die faster increase their profit margins significantly.

How to avoid it: Buying a fluorescent or LED light bulb might be more expensive, but it’s worth it. The amount of energy you save down the line will eventually make up for the higher cost. If you’re anti-LED, you should make a habit of turning your lights off when you’re not in the room. That way, you can help them last longer.

light bulbs


3. Video Games

It seems like every 4 years (or sooner), a new game console comes with the “it” factor, usually around the holiday season. A new system means that you have to buy new games to play on it. Sadly, there are only a few exceptions of video game systems designed to not prevent backwards compatibility. This way, the sales for the latest technology are drastically increased and customers are enticed to buy newer copies of the classic, childhood games.

How to avoid it: Tire of playing your video games? Simply swap them with your friends; this way, you can always play something new. At the same time, you can also sign up with Gamefly, which allows you to rent games for a flat rate every month.

4. Ink Cartridges

If you replace your printer’s ink cartridges yourself, you might have noticed a weird golden microchip-looking thing inside. It’s a “smart chip” that alerts your printer the ink inside is running low. You read that right: Not empty, just possibly running low. So thank that chip next time you’re warned to immediately replace your ink cartridges.

How to avoid it: Welcome to 2017, where capitalism is simply thriving. But if you’re tired of spending $50 per name-brand cartridge, you can sure look for a cheaper, generic brand that does the job. Printing smarter will also get you far; play with the grayscale settings and optimize your internet content if you’re often printing from websites or email. You can easily avoid printing useless advertisements and unnecessary headers and footers.

5. MP3 Players

Unlike other consumer electronics (such as laptops), you can rarely upgrade the memory of a MP3 player. It means that when you’ve filled it up with music, your only option is to buy another MP3 player that has more memory available. Also, it’s not common for users to simply replace lithium-ion batteries on their own. You’re forced to take a trip to the service department whenever your device no longer holds a charge. You’re often given the option to replace the battery (which is expensive in itself) or simply buy a whole new unit (which is even more expensive).

How to avoid it: Check out YouTube videos if you want to learn how to change the batteries yourself. Even better is to take a subscription to any of the popular streaming services, including Pandora or Spotify. You get all the music you want and you never have to worry about running low on space.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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