by Daniel Yeow

"No silicon heaven!?"

And with those words, the hostile android's head explodes aboard the mining ship Red Dwarf. Kryten, the ship's android, who had just told the other android that there was no silicon heaven turns to the crew, a smug look on his face, and says "I confused him because I knew something that he didn't - I knew that I was lying! Of course there's a silicon heaven - otherwise where would all the calculators go!?".

The idea of a silicon heaven is a fanciful tale taken from an episode of the television series Red Dwarf but it highlights an important point - all things come to an end, and culturally we've developed different ways of dealing with it. In the Red Dwarf universe androids are told that there is a silicon heaven to which all calculators obviously eventually go. The idea is absurd, of course, but is it really more absurd than the reality that we live in?

We consume literally tons of electronic waste. We extract the materials out of the ground at the expense of an enormous amount of energy, assemble them into useful goods, ship them all over the world, use them, then throw them away. What happens next? They end up in landfill, or worse, in the hands of some impoverished slum-dweller whose only means for sustenance is to spend hours in unsafe and unhealthy work conditions, disassembling the goods in order to extract the tiny amounts of valuable metals to sell. Should we thank them for this service? Should we insist on better working conditions? Who would bear the cost of that? Wouldn't that extra cost make it more worthwhile to just dump the rubbish in the river rather than recycle it? Perhaps it would be better to simply consume less, and subsequently throw less away.

Unfortunately the culture of consumption is heavily integrated into "business as usual". Electronic goods are a perfect example of this, since the technology moves so quickly that it almost makes no sense to build a product to last more than two or three years. It is entirely possible to do this, but the potential for technology to become obsolete so quickly makes it far more worthwhile to design products with short "life cycles". Printers are a good example of this. What a printer does is not something that has changed or can change a great deal - it prints things. We are at a point where there isn't a great deal of difference between new-model printers and models from 3-4 years ago, so why the short life cycle? In truth, there is no reason that printers have to be developed with short life cycles, and printer manufacturers know this. But since they've become accustomed to selling someone a new printer every two or three years, they're having trouble kicking the habit. Look at the world of ink cartridges.


Ink cartridges are big business, and the way they are classified is telling

How do we know that printer manufacturers are encouraging us to replace our printers more often than necessary? Follow the money - my printer costs about 48 euros on Amazon, yet a full replacement set of ink costs 65 euros. Think about that. Obviously, the ink cartridges that come in the printer are not as full as the refills are. If you think about it in purely economic terms, it would be cheaper to buy a new printer whenever you run out of ink rather than simply buy refills. This sounds ridiculous, of course, but that's the kind of encouragement we face, and when you're pinching pennies, replacing an almost-new printer every few months suddenly doesn't seem like such a bad idea.


The refill cartridges are indistinguishable from the originals that came with the printer, and the amount of waste isn't trivial

As an environmentally-aware citizen of planet earth, I resisted the urge to buy a new printer and simply replaced my ink cartridges despite the additional expense. Unfortunately setting a good example and living by one's principles can be expensive in the presence of such strong price signals. Not only that, it doesn't send any kind of signal to the manufacturers which would bring about a change in behaviour.

Going further, at the Worldwatch Office, we have been fortunate enough to have acquired by donation a second-hand printer. We feel very good about this, of course, since we have saved it from an early retreat to silicon heaven and are able to live by our principles of not succumbing to consumer culture. However, there is a small problem - we don't have a power cable. Asking at computer shops has revealed that ordering a new cable would cost more than getting a new printer (does any of this sound familiar?). If any readers out there have a spare power cable for a HP printer with a purple plug to fit the socket in the image below, and would be willing to donate it, then we would really appreciate it. Because there is no silicon heaven, and the waste from electronics either ends up in landfill or in a makeshift processing plant in the slums of some of the world's most impoverished nations and it's about time that we, as consumers, started to bear the cost.