These Are 5 of the Most Wasteful Electronics in Existence
Anne Marie Green is a Right to Repair campaign associate for U.S. PIRG, an advocacy organization.
Even in an age of smart technology, some electronics are simply dumb. We cannot and should not consider everything with a lithium battery and an LCD screen a work of genius — or even a worthwhile contribution to society, especially when it’s eventually bound for the garbage bin. We consume too much stuff: Electronic waste is the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet. Not only is e-waste abundant, but due to the heavy metals and plastics inside, it’s also dangerous. E-waste accounts for 70% of the toxic components in our garbage. One of the best things we can do for the planet is to consume and discard fewer things with circuit boards and batteries, but that can be hard when some stuff is made to become junk. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of ridiculously wasteful electronics that are, literally, junk by design:
1. Digital pregnancy tests
This deceptively simple product feeds off of the belief that electronics must, by default, be more accurate than dye on a stick. Manufacturers created a device that can tell you if you’re pregnant on an LCD screen instead of reading lines on a paper test. Yet when a curious engineer deconstructed the digital test to find out how it worked, he discovered two batteries, three LED lights, and one paper pregnancy test. The $12 hunk of plastic and metal was reading the same 80-cent paper pregnancy strip that we’ve been using for decades.
In other words, manufacturers are asking us to pay 15 times more for a supposedly higher-tech test that is, in fact, no more accurate than a nonelectronic one. It would be funny if it didn’t create a whole lot of needless waste.
2. Disposable phone chargers
In 2021, every device seems to have an evil alter-ego with the word “disposable” in front of it. Hence disposable phone chargers, which give your smartphone a temporary, often only partial boost when it runs out of power and you have nowhere to plug it in.
To credit Chargetab, the maker of the single-use emergency phone charger, it runs a free recycling program and uses some biodegradable materials. Any product branded as sustainable that includes the words “single-use,” however, should raise red flags. While a charger like this may be critical in the case of a power outage or an emergency, churning through single-use batteries on the regular can’t be sustainable, especially when there are numerous reusable portable chargers on the market. It’s also impossible to know how many customers will simply throw the drained battery in the trash once their phone is charged — a practice that is highly toxic.
3. Five-dollar appliances
When I bought my first vacuum cleaner this year, it was a huge deal. I dutifully clean out the filter and brush roll every month. I take care of it because I know that it will last me for years. I wonder, however, how long a $5 vacuum would last me?
Many people in the world of gadgets will tell you that price does not adequately convey quality, and they’re mostly right. But it’s reasonable to call into question the quality of kitchen appliances, meant to be partners in our lives for years, when they cost less than a movie ticket. You can also buy a toaster for $10, a panini press for $9, and a kettle for $5. Low prices for essential items provide great options for those who can’t afford a fancy Vitamix blender for hundreds of dollars. On the other hand, reviewers have said that a blender that costs $8.95 breaks after a few uses, leaks from the bottom, or gives off a burning rubber smell. We might as well throw that $8.95 blender into the 59 million ton pile of electronic waste the world discards every year.
4. Gadgets with nonremovable batteries
Most of us would never think of tossing out our old TV remotes or graphing calculators just because the batteries died — but in 2021, we often do this with high-end consumer electronics.
Cellphones are no longer made with easily removable batteries. They are often glued down or sheltered behind strong adhesives. Thanks to organizations like iFixit, it is undoubtedly possible to replace most cellphone batteries, even by yourself — it’s just not very easy. And it’s not just smartphones: The newest Nintendo Switch, for instance, does not have a user-friendly removable battery. While iFixit has a how-to guide to help gamers try to replace a dead battery themselves, it’s difficult. The replacement requires special tools like a “spudger” and isopropyl alcohol to get through the battery adhesives. Nintendo has no incentive to make this process any easier. In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission determined that the battery can’t be removed by the user — which means that most users have to pay Nintendo to replace the lithium-ion battery in their Switch or seek out a gaming console repair shop to make the replacement for a fee.
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The worst part of the Nintendo Switch’s non-user-friendly battery is that if a user decides to toss it in the trash because replacing the battery is too difficult, it could start a fire or leach toxic heavy metals into a landfill. Isn’t that a good enough reason to make the battery replaceable?
5. Disposable electric toothbrushes
Electric toothbrushes are another device that now have the dreaded “disposable” modifier in front. Most standard electric toothbrushes have replaceable or rechargeable batteries. Yet this disposable electric toothbrush actually boasts that its battery “requires no replacing,” as if the manufacturer is doing us a favor by creating a device that will rapidly become junk. On the packaging, it advises the consumer to “simply change out your Pulsar brush for a new one” when the battery dies. To translate, when your impossible-to-remove-or-replace battery runs out of power, toss the whole toothbrush into your trash can. It’s bad enough that all the plastic goes into the landfill or incinerator but a battery too?
Why junk matters
It may seem convenient to be able to throw out your electric toothbrush when it stops working and buy a new one or to hand Apple your old iPhone to recycle instead of changing its battery. But it comes at a cost.
First, it means we’re mining and extracting resources that we don’t need. Manufacturing requires serious amounts of water, energy, and minerals. A single phone produces the planet-warming equivalent of 122.7 pounds of carbon dioxide, or 26 weeks’ worth of running laundry loads, and requires 295 pounds of raw material. Making lithium-ion batteries is particularly environmentally taxing. While the alkaline batteries in a digital pregnancy test may not contain mercury like the other devices do, it takes energy and resources to make the test’s plastic shell and electronic components when at its core, it’s only a paper test in disguise.
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Second, we’re throwing too much stuff away. Americans threw out 46.2 million tons of durable goods in 2017 — vacuums, blenders, gaming consoles, and more — that should last for years. Whenever we add electronic components to the garbage, we add risks. We’re allowing heavy metals such as mercury to seep into our ground when we throw electronics in the landfill.
Finally, stuff that’s made to become junk is a waste of time and money no matter how much it costs. Whether it’s a $5 vacuum or a $300 gaming console without a removable battery, if it’s dumped in a landfill after a few short years, it ends up hurting us more than it helped.
The electronics on this list may be more of a burden than a benefit. For our sake and the planet’s, some things just don’t need a battery.