To the uninitiated, there is something almost magical about electricity. You flip a switch and out comes heat, light, movement, sound or a whole slew of other things, including the wast and world-changing internet.
But do we need everything electronic under the sun?
The problem with electronics
From a purely frugal and personal standpoint, owning fewer electric devices means fewer batteries to keep charged, fewer devices plugged in and a lower electric bill. And that is an excellent argument for anyone, so if that is your jam, do that. We do use a staggering amount of electricity, so any reduction will make an impact.
But if you are also driven by a desire to do good and right by the earth as much as you can, you might also be aware of the dark side to recycling, and the recycling of electronic waste is one of the worst, if not the worst, both in terms of environmental impact and human impact.
Simply put, one of the biggest problems with electronic devices is that they were never designed to be recycled in the first place. And when something has as many components and different materials as electronics do, that becomes a problem. Several of the materials used as also toxic, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and a variety of flame retardants, which means the recycling of electronic waste needs to be carried out by specialists.
Yes, there is potential in electronic waste. They contain a higher concentration of rare earth metals than the earth’s crust. But they are really difficult to access. Some progress is being made by researchers, but just as with single-use plastic issues leading to the zero-waste movement and people trying to reduce their plastic consumption, it seems that the easiest and most ethical option for us conscious consumers is to simply reduce the number of electronics we buy, maintain and send for (hopefully) recycling.
How can we do that?
1. Do you have several items performing similar services?
As always, we can only control our own thoughts and actions, so that is a natural place to start.
Look around you. We have become accustomed to electricity in all its amazing shapes and sizes. Do we need all of them? The answer is obviously going to depend on each individual. I would never advocate for someone to not use electric equipment they depend on!
But do we really need a laptop, a stationary computer, a tablet, and a phone, for instance? Most of them perform similar functions, which is to access the internet, stay in touch with friends and colleagues and help us work and stay organized.
I know a laptop does not provide an ideal work position over longer periods of time, but things like a laptop stand and an extra keyboard/mouse can really help with that.
2. Avoid electric one-trick ponies
One of the biggest perpetrators of one-trick gadgets and electronics in general, in my opinion, is the kitchen. There are so many gizmos and trinkets sold that are designed to perform only one function! That staggers me.
I’ve seen strawberry stem removers, avocado slicers, and even a banana slicer. On the electronic side, of course, we have potato peelers that waste half the potato, electric bread cutters, popcorn machines, not to mention all the individual little ovens and presses that have emerged lately, such as panini presses, muffin makers, donut makers, and tiny grills.
Like many Norwegians, we do have an old waffle iron on top of our cupboards that sees regular use. But to you know what? If I find myself wanting a cheese toast one day, you can be sure I will pull that waffle iron down and use it to make me a toast. The waffle pattern does not bother me one bit.
Now, I will admit, that long before this, I was already one of those kitchen enthusiasts who advocate that I can get a whole lot of cooking done with just a sharp knife and a cutting board. It brings me a lot of joy to declutter and reduce the number of items in my life, so maybe I’m just one of those people.
Again, I am not here to tell you what constitutes a useless purchase. The whole point is to look at your life and what you actually use and enjoy. And if something breaks that wasn’t such a big benefit to you. Consider not replacing it.
3. Use it as intended and until it no longer works
I know there are a lot of people who proudly proclaim that they never read an instruction manual. But I dunno, I find it can be useful to know how something is intended to be used. If I do, it becomes an informed decision to go beyond that range, knowing I might shorten my items lifespan if I do.
When you do have an electric device and it is bringing you joy (and you are using it as intended), please also keep using it for as long as possible. The longer an item is used, the fewer replacements we buy over a lifetime, the less landfill and recycling problems.
For this reason, I try to limit the amount of devices I have that rely on batteries. I know people who swear by their wireless keyboard and mouse, but having a set that plugs into my laptop via USB isn’t really a big hassle to me. We know that batteries loose their capacity over time and will reach a point where they cease to function. Also, remembering to charge 10+ different things is just a plain hassle.
4. Look for carefully used
As we all know, it is pretty amazing what people are selling or giving away for a fraction of the sales price. Gumtree, Craigslist, Facebook groups and more are all places people are getting rid of their surplus. So if you need a new-to-you replacement or upgrade, do look there first to see if you can find something that is fairly new and carefully used. First impressions matter a lot here, and always ask if you can plug it in to see if it works before you let any money change hands.
5. Use your voice
When you do need to go out and purchase a new replacement for something you can’t do without, spend some time doing research. For electronics, one of the most important things affecting their lifespan its repairability.
When my phone was falling apart (I could receive 1 message and reply to it with a quick yes/no before it died, my friends lost patience), I really wanted a Fairphone. It was the only phone I knew that advertized selling individual parts. So if you ruined your microphone, you can buy a new one! I sadly did not end up buying one after all, but went for a cheaper, used phone that has served me well so far.
The same went for our kitchen machine. When we did go to the step and splurge on a kitchen machine (by far, I consider it one of our biggest luxuries), we first researched what kind of machine we wanted. We landed on the Kenwood because it has an excellent reputation, and again, they have spare parts! They are built to last. And when we decided, we went and registered to get emails with offers from different electronic companies, so that when a sale came on for what we wanted, we could jump on it.
If no good alternative exists for what you need, ask! You might get a no and you might have to make do with a less ideal alternative, but your money is truly the most powerful weapon we have as consumers. If you and several other customers lets a company know that you want repairable, recyclable devices, and won’t be spending money with them until they do, that sends a message. When enough people do it, it sends a message that the company either has to adapt or go out of business.
This really does work for everything. If you don’t like a company’s employment practices? Don’t give them your money. If you really do like another company and their practices, support them. One person alone won’t make a difference of course, but if we are hundreds, thousands (dare I even say, millions?) of people making conscious choices with our money, the impact will be very real.
6. If you don’t use it, don’t replace it
I think there are a lot of items that we have in our homes by default. We are so used to everyone having them that we just accept it as the done thing. Like having both a washing and a dryer. If you live in a climate dry enough for a drying rack, I really recommend using that.
Similarly, if you don’t really watch TV or wish you spent less time watching TV, could you go without? Could you invite your friends over for quiz, puzzles or board games instead of just staring at a screen and eating snacks? Do you need a microwave? A landline?
I mention these not as judgements, but as observations. The number of households in the US with a television and a microwave is actually going down as more and more people focus their time and energy on other things.
Have you looked at your home and thought about what you really need and what you can make do without, both electronically and in general? Please share in the comments so we can all be inspired to look at our own consumption more critically!
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