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dot life Monday, 30 September, 2002, 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK
Life in the gadgets graveyard
The country's stockpile of "last year's gadgets" is growing every day. And despite new EU laws on recycling, it's still no easier to make devices last.
Imagine throwing away an expensive colour printer and high quality scanner even though they are both in perfect working order. Madness? Not when the items in question happen to be more than a couple of years old.

Electronic gadgets are piling up in spare rooms and landfill sites because today's state of the art is tomorrow's unwanted junk.

For the same price as new ink cartridges for an old colour printer, you can buy a new colour printer that's twice as fast and twice the quality.

Landfill site
Landfills are filling
And although that scanner works, it can't be connected to a computer bought less than a couple of years ago because of changes to connection standards.

Even if it did, the scanner wouldn't work with Windows XP, the software than powers most home computers bought today, because, well, even though the scanner works, the software decrees that it's obsolete.

Working order

The truth is, even when they are in fully working order you can't give away an ageing scanner or colour printer to a local primary school or nursery. I know this because I've tried.

It's not just computer hardware that's unwanted even when it's in perfect working order. Walk down any high street and you'll see displays of last year's handsets in mobile phones shop windows with signs which read along the lines of: "If your mobile looks like one of these then you need to come in and see us!"

The message is clear: your mobile phone may be a perfectly functioning wonder of electronics - but if it doesn't take pictures or have the very latest advanced features, it's as embarrassing as a long forgotten Dollar album.

Breakdown

If working electronics are discarded when they lose the cutting edge, what chance do broken ones have?

Five years ago it was worth repairing a television set, hi-fi unit or even a video recorder. Unless something was very wrong indeed it was almost always cheaper to fix your existing one than to buy a new one.

Old iMac
"Hasn't it got one of those moveable arm things?"
But now the economics aren't so clear cut. You can still choose to repair your television when it goes on the blink, but secretly aren't you just a little bit pleased that it's not working?

A broken set gives you the perfect excuse to upgrade to a wide screen television, or perhaps a flat screen one you can hang on your wall, or a digital television with a built-in DVD player and Dolby 5.1 surround sound decoder.

Fix the CD player? You must be joking! It might just be the fuse, but a new CD player would play MP3 music files you've downloaded from the internet, and maybe video CDs and DVDs as well. There's no point throwing good money after bad - better get a new one.

Disposable income

It turns out that it's very common practice in Britain to replace domestic gadgets like televisions, video recorders and hi-fi systems, as well as mobile phones, long before they are broken - especially among the 18-24 year old age group, which typically has a high disposable income and the willingness to spend the money on consumer gadgetry.

The old gadgets, functioning but unwanted, are simply relegated to spares to be stuffed in the back of cupboard and hoarded - or dumped.


There are hundreds of millions of pounds worth of phones lying around

Colin Thompson
A survey carried out by London-based communications company Telewest found that more than half of all households in the UK have more than three electronic gadgets that are no longer wanted, and almost a third of men have four or more.

Colin Thompson, a spokesman for Falkirk-based mobile phone recycling company Eurosource, says as many as 80 million abandoned mobile phone handsets are languishing at the backs of drawers in homes throughout Britain.

Repaired

"Each phone that works is actually probably worth between 2 and 10 (to a recycler), so there are hundreds of millions of pounds worth of phones lying around.

"These could be sorted and repaired before being sold on to brokers who ship them to countries such as China or South Africa which have poor land-line telephone infrastructures, or stripped of useable parts and plastic," he says.

The total value of all the abandoned electronics is far higher, according to the Telewest survey. It found that more than 5 billion of working televisions, video players, hi-fi equipment and other gadgets are lying around unused and gathering dust.

But to benefit from this 5 billion, the owners of the abandoned equipment need to get it out of their houses and over to a recycler.

Yet despite the vast sums of money involved in total, the survey also found that when it comes to recycling, almost half of 18 - 24 year olds simply can't be bothered.


The UK's National Computer Day is on Friday 4, October. See BBC News Online on the day for more ideas of what to do with old machines.

Meanwhile, if you have bright ideas for dealing with defunct devices, let us know, using the form below.

Your comments so far:

If you move away from the obsession with 18-24 year olds, you'll find two sets of people. One is elderly people (many of whom have plenty of cash now that the kids have left home) who get straight into the latest gear from a base of nothing at all, and who therefore have nothing to throw away. Then there are the fortysomethings like me who have kids and other expenses, and who have finally woken up to the fact that much of the drive to upgrade is a marketing ploy by manufacturers who need to shift goods which, let's face it, never go wrong. So to keep in business they must create a myth of obsolescence. I am an author and I have written four books on either one of my 2 computers, both of which run Windows 95, and which will continue to work perfectly well as stand-alone units until they fall to pieces. Any reason I have for upgrading them will be to become compatible with broadband... one day.
Henry, UK

I can't even get a simple switch changed on our 18-month-old washing machine for less than the price of buying a new machine.
Ian, UK

Old computer hardware is already appearing in showrooms placed on reproduction antique furniture!
Alun, Netherlands

Many charities will gratefully take old computer equiptment if you ring round, either to pass on or use themselves.
Beki, UK

Reuse the casings of old tv sets for aquariums.
Vikas, UK

OK, so I'm a geek, but I tend to keep a lot of the old kit because you never know when it will come in handy - and the only reason people need bigger and better computers is because the software requires it. I've got old Pentiums which act as servers for websites, and even an old BBC Micro is a great training tool for assembler (machine language) programming. And my old mobile phone came in really handy when my new one broke, and I was waiting for a replacement!
Joel Rowbottom, UK

This is an issue which annoys me. When I once tried to get a television fixed the repair man virtually refused saying it wasn't worth it. The problem is that the cost to the environment of dumping these items is not taken into account.
Darren Riley, UK

At my previous company, we sold 15-year-old software that ran on MS-DOS and Amiga to India. When we first received an order for this software (which we had assumed was completely obsolete), we were curious to discover why anyone would pay for this. Investigation uncovered the fact that in rural India there is a demand for old, but functional, PC's from Europe and America as they are affordable. Surely, this has to be an ideal solution. Perhaps charities should put a 'machine bank' next to the Clothes Bank. Better than the contraptions filling up yet another landfill!
Alan Dean, England

I keep hearing that schools will not accept donated old kit. I'm a school network manager and I do. Even if I can't actually use it, I can usually find stuff on it I can canabalise for repair work. The truth is very few people actually ever offer to donate stuff to us. I admit I refuse items of below pentium level - as my system will not cope with sub-pentium. But it's not often I turn stuff down :-)
Andy Smart

I would not have to renew my scanner and printer every other year if manufacturers were required to keep their driver software up to date for 5 years and to maintain stocks of toner etc at a reasonable price.
Martin, United Kingdom

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Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

10 Apr 02 | Business
13 Jul 01 | UK
16 Aug 02 | Technology
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