How to Be Kind to the Earth, and Your Wallet

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

Before you head to the mall this holiday season, here's food for thought.

Discarded electronics are the fastest-growing source of hazardous waste. And with manufacturers increasingly viewing devices as disposable, this year's must-have cell phone or music player could be in a landfill before you pay off your credit card bill.

"In the last 10 years, the life span of these products has been cut in half. That is planned obsolescence," said Rick Hind, legislative director of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign.

But can you resist the onslaught of holiday marketing for the latest products and their new bells and whistles? Some 22 percent of sales this season will be consumer electronics, costing more than $22 billion, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Here are some guidelines for stretching the usable lifetime of these gadgets, and for buying a gift that will stand the test of time.

Buy established products that have a track record with other consumers.

"Don't be an early adopter," said Ben Popken, editor of, based in Brooklyn, N.Y. "You're going to be paying the most, and that's the version the company rushed to market and is more likely to have bugs."

Waiting will give you a chance to assess whether a product line is successful enough that the manufacturer is likely to continue to support it with parts, accessories and repair service for years to come.

"Those products that capture the imagination build up and keep going at a consistent rate," said Rob Shaddock, a Motorola senior vice president, citing the four-year run of the Razr phone. "Those that haven't captured the imagination, you watch those tail off quite rapidly."

Manufacturers plan their product lines with an eye to having fresh models for every selling season, such as Valentine's Day, Mother's and Father's days, graduation, back to school, and the Christmas shopping season that begins in earnest Friday.

That doesn't mean that every four months you'll see an improvement. Some changes are minor. Sometimes designers fumble and have to discontinue or change a product line, which will be reflected in what's available a year or more in the future.

"It's confusing and there's absolutely no reason for them to be upgrading them that quickly," said Jeff Keller, founder and editor of the Digital Camera Resource Page, based in Oakland, Calif. "A model that may be a little older is still capable."

Choose only gadgets with features you want and understand.

"The consumer experience is lousy because these devices are complicated; they have many different interfaces on them," said Van Baker, an analyst with the technology research company Gartner Inc. in San Jose, Calif. "It's beyond the capability of the typical consumer to understand it."

The proliferation of formats for accessories and connectors is largely driven by technological advances. However, it's also a bid by manufacturers to wed you to their brand, or at least to prevent prices from plummeting as competitors offer generic versions of a standard part.

"From a manufacturer's perspective, some confusion in the marketplace isn't a bad thing because it prevents commoditization," Baker said.

"We see a lot of confusion around different models," said Jon Aumann, a Baltimore-based agent for the Geek Squad, Best Buy's repair division. "The consumer has to be very knowledgeable about which model they're getting and which parts go with that model."

RCA designed a new camcorder with only five buttons and a built-in USB connector, aiming to keep it easy to use, small and inexpensive, said David Arland, vice president of marketing for RCA Audio/Video.

"Most people are not gadget freaks. Most people just want a serviceable piece of equipment that does what they want," Arland said.

Look for accessories or replacement parts online.

Say you lose the power cord to your camcorder and it will cost $200 to buy a replacement from the manufacturer almost as much as a brand new camcorder with better zoom, memory and battery life. (This happened to the author of this article.)

"A manufacturer that charges $200 for a plug is telling you, `I don't want you to buy this plug, I want you to buy a new camera,"' said Britt Beemer of America's Research Group. "The manufacturers look at their product as disposable."

If you're creative, you may be able to work around the limited availability and high cost of older-model parts from the manufacturer or major retail store.

Instead of tossing the camcorder, see if you can find a battery charger or replacement cord through, or any of the numerous battery sites. To get mobile phone accessories and devices to connect, try a site like

Make sure you know the site's return policy, in case the replacement doesn't work often connectors are proprietary to a certain manufacturer.

Shop with an eye to eventually recycling the product.

Greenpeace rates 14 manufacturers based on their willingness to take back old devices and the amount of toxic chemicals in their products, which can make recycling difficult. Nokia and Sony Ericsson win the highest marks, with Panasonic, Apple and Hewlett-Packard at the bottom.

"Find out what is in each product you're looking at to buy, and whether they'll take it back when it's no longer usable," Hind said. "Most companies realize that if their toxics are declining, the recycling and take-back is easier. Customer loyalty can be built into recycling."

Repair your old electronics, or at least resell or recycle them.

In an ideal world, you'd repair a video game console instead of replacing it.

But you're only human, and it's hard to resist buying new when the repair would cost close to or more than a newer, improved gadget.

Consumers typically view electronics that cost under $150 as better replaced than repaired, said Tim Bajarin, an analyst with high-tech researcher Creative Strategies in Campbell, Calif.

"Some of these are bought as throwaways," Bajarin said. "I've got a drawer of them."

Digital Camera Resource readers start to complain when repairs reach about $175, said Keller. "There's a lot of price gouging in the repair process," he said.

Before throwing away broken electronics, explore donating them to a local charity or school. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists resources for donating or recycling used electronics at

You can also search for recycling programs at or

And there's nothing wrong with making a buck. You can sell used electronics on eBay or targeted sites like and

Get used to change.

"You can't stop progress," said Terry Shea, a spokesman for JVC in Wayne, N.J. "In the end, the consumer benefits, because how can you argue with more advanced products that do more, and typically for less money?"

This article was originally published on Tuesday, November 20, 2007, by Newhouse News Service.