At this stage, we are well and truly a society of gadget nerds. Computers, mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, and dozens of other electronic devices proliferate, and we use them for almost everything. Hype around the release of new models is huge, and you’re encouraged to update your gadgets regularly or risk looking like a backward fogey who’s more familiar with Morse code than txt spk. The ethical cost of continuously updating these devices is large, but there are a few things you can do to swim against the tide and use electronics in a more sustainable way.
Know your rights
Often, the decision to buy a new piece of electronic equipment happens when the old one carks it. This might be the timely death of an heirloom television, but sometimes electronics break before a reasonable amount of time or usage has elapsed. It’s always worth checking with the seller or manufacturer before you put it out on the nature strip for the council to pick up. The Australian Consumer Law clearly sets out your rights when it comes to broken or faulty goods, and if you’re entitled you might be able to squeeze another year out of your smartphone by having someone else foot the bill. For a simple, amusing explanation of when to ask for a repair or replacement, watch this clip from ABC consumer affairs show The Checkout. Unfortunately, most electronics retailers don’t know or choose to ignore the law. See this CHOICE investigation on the subject, and make sure you don’t let sales staff railroad your legal entitlements. This guide from Lifehacker on how to get Apple to replace a defective phone offers handy tips for what to say to retailers when you’re asserting your rights.
Donate your cast-offs
If you absolutely must have the newest computer model and your old one is still in working order, donate your computer to a charity electronics organisation. These groups will take your gently used computers, spruce them up, and give them to people or groups in need who aren’t concerned about having the latest and greatest innovation. That way your old computer can eke out its retirement somewhere it’s truly appreciated, and community groups buy one less new computer. For donation options in your location, consult the Give Now electricals page.
Recycle your e-waste
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is shaping up as one of the biggest global pollution problems of the coming century. Computers and mobile phones contain a laundry list of hazardous and non-biodegradable materials like plastic, lead, cadmium and mercury. Entire towns in China and Ghana are covered in e-waste, and the people who live there are forced to do dangerous and low-paid salvage work to re-sell the residual components of dumped devices. For more information on the human cost of electronics disposal, see this Guardian piece on the town of Agbogbloshie. To avoid your old computers, phones and TV sets contributing to this problem, check out free tech recycling schemes like the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme and Mobile Muster.
Electronic ethics guide in your pocket
For brick and mortar shopping, print out a copy of Baptist World Aid’s tiny summary of their Behind the Barcode report into electronics companies. The report investigated dozens of popular electronics brands on labour rights, worker treatment, and living wage, assigning a grade from A to F. It’s trustworthy, simple to understand, and covers most brands you’re likely to find in electronics and department stores. None of the brands received an A grade, but some got as high as B+. Even if you only use it as a cheat sheet to avoid purchasing from the brands that got a low score, it’s worth tucking inside your wallet, especially if you buy a lot of electronics for personal or professional use.
Choose trustworthy refurbs
Refurbished goods sometimes get a bad rap, but if you’re interested in savings and know where to look, they can be a great choice that’s less harmful than buying new. It’s important to make sure your computer has been refurbished by someone credible, rather than being given the once-over with a can of compressed air in the back of a truck somewhere. A good choice might be buying direct from the manufacturer: Apple, Dell, Acer and some other brands have website sections where you can buy refurbished electronics at steep discounts. You can also buy from reputable third parties like GreenPC, which provides very low-cost PCs to charities and people on low incomes.
Spring clean your computer
If you haven’t given your computer a bit of TLC recently, look into how you can extend PC’s lifespan and make it a little more enjoyable to use. PCs can become crammed with malware and unnecessary software, which may inhibit their processing speed and generally make your computing experience miserable. On the hardware side, PC towers can be incredibly dusty and grimy places. This stops the fan from working at its best, which can lead to overheating and performance issues. Check out how to treat your computer right at Lifehacker.
Investigate DIY repairs
For the more confident electronics consumer, there is a wealth of resources out there that show you how to repair your own electronics. This can be risky, and always check with the seller or manufacturer first to see if they’ll repair or replace your item. But if you damaged the item yourself, or you’re simply a free spirit with a broken television and nothing to lose, it’s worth attempting to repair your item before you junk it. Replacing cracked laptop or phone screens, for instance, is a common DIY job that most people can do by themselves. For a database of repair guides, see iFixit.
Change the trends
Instead of buying the latest smartphone upgrade, consider joining the vintage mobile phone brigade. Mobiles that we recognise from a decade ago are surging in popularity, and it’s not hard to see why when you compare the weeklong battery life of a mid-2000s Nokia with the paltry 24 hours of a new model iPhone. If going off the grid appeals to you, consider buying one of these vintage wonders so you can keep in contact and break your Twitter addiction in one go. For klutzes and clumsy people these phones can be a real boon – their lack of glass panels and sturdy plastic casing make them virtually immune to everyday accidents that can total more modern specimens. Sellers include Vintage Phones and Unimobile.