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When I was a kid, life featured just four noteworthy pieces of high-tech wonder: the phone, a tube TV, a transistor radio and the holy hi-fi. Only the radio was portable. And whatever the family had when you were six was still there when you left for college. Now it all slips in your pocket and becomes an antique before it's out of the box.
Consider the iPhone 5. The third version of the same basic product in two years, it's fairly identical to iPhone 4S and not much different from iPhone 4 or even iPhone 3GS. But that didn't stop over five million from sailing off shelves the first weekend (1). In fact, so many new iClones were sold, that economists credit the product with phoning in a 1.1% bump in retail sales for September (2).
But this felt like a consumer zombie apocalypse mindlessly shuffling toward the nearest Apple store. Must. Eat. More. Screens. Impressive perhaps but given that the number of cellphones in the U.S. now exceeds our population (3), you have to figure that lost in the buzz over five million new iPhones whose big change is a slightly spiffier screen were the five million existing cell phones suddenly turned into insanely pricey paperweights because they weren't the shiniest thing on the block anymore.
Now I have nothing against Apple (I'm writing this on a much admired iMac) or gadgets (just try to get between me and my iPod), but should we really be replacing things that still work fine simply because this month's model is a scootch thinner? That sort of profligate madness tends to reduce empires to rubble. Yet it's just the tip of the iCeberg.
My reading tells me that the typical home has an average of 24 gadgets (4), many of which will be junked as soon as their slightly hipper replacements arrive. That's why the U.S. dumps some 384 million pieces of e-gear into the trash each year and creates 2.44 million tons of so-called e-waste in the process (5).
Talk about a disconnect. We're making mountains of waste that waste mountains of resources thanks to a condition experts call novophilia, loving things that are new simply because they are. But newness hardly equals necessity, and necessity should be the mother of consumption. Whether it's a phone or a fridge buy it if you need it, but if what you've got has still got it, save your pennies and our planet. Anything else is ecologically hazardous, mentally unhealthy, financially ruinous, and just plain dopey.
Yet that's easier said than done because in a 24/7 world with the hard sell on nearly every surface, we're assaulted by some 5,000 ads every day (6), and these messages want us to do more than buy. They'd have us to link our self-worth to our stuff and believe that our identities come from what's in our backpacks not what's in our hearts.
That's the one thing we should never buy. Here's another: The idea that our old gear is garbage when it's literally a gold mine. Recycling a million cell phones reclaims 50 lbs. of gold, 550 lbs. of silver, 20 lbs. of palladium, and 20,000 lbs. of copper (7), which use just a fraction of energy needed to obtain new metal (8). Despite this, only 15% of our e-goods get recycled (9). These resources can help us change that:
Find a local drop-off location at E-cycling Central.
Head to EPEAT to see what makes and models are the greenest.
Donate old electronics to others via programs like these.