kenstorie.ca/ writing

The Environment /

Get Wired

Are we beginning to realize that our gadget-loving wireless-mania lifestyles are presenting a toxic waste problem?  Once again we’ve allowed a technology to virtually take over the marketplace without even thinking about the environmental consequences.  And while we spend the next decade deciding how to deal with that, we’re leaving a mountain of poisonous batteries and assorted waste as a gift to our kids.  We’re dumping millions rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries per year. How thoughtful of us! 

Its bad enough when useful productive technologies have troublesome side effects, but when the frivolous use of toys by our nation of restless consumers clearly presents serious environmental damage, its time to re-think the way we allow products into the marketplace.

I recently went shopping for a computer. Prices were good and they bundled in a whole bunch of accessories, including a printer and a wireless desktop. Now I knew I didn’t need a wireless keyboard and mouse and I already had a good printer, but it seemed like such a deal. 

The printers, I knew were throwaway items designed to keep us buying ink. I thought I could at least give it to someone. 

But I started to hate the wireless keyboard and mouse the minute they came out of the wasteful packaging. I had to read instructions and get batteries to set the damn things up, whereas the old-fashioned keyboard and mice I’d had to replace over the years just plugged in and worked. But it wasn’t until I was using it that I realized what a totally ridiculous thing a wireless desktop is. I’ve never minded being in the same room as my computer screen when I’m surfing the net and I’ve seldom had the urge to get up and dance about while typing a report.

That got me thinking about the whole wireless craze.

What is wrong with wires? When I bought my first VCR, back in the dawn of “civilization as we now know it” it came with a remote – cleverly attached to the machine by a wire. Worked perfectly, never had a battery to change, and we managed to deal with that ungainly wire with minimal hardship. 

Soon after that we purchased our first wireless phone. What a step forward!  But really, there are phone jacks in nearly every room these days.  I have a phone on my office desk and beside the couch in the living room.  How much convenience do I need? And talk about planned obsolescence – they have a short lifespan – meant to be tossed and replaced. In the meantime the old-fashioned plug-in phone that we bought in the 1980’s still works fine.

My favorite has to be the remote controlled air conditioner. Really? We need to adjust it that often?

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with new technology and skepticism about gadgets, but when I started thinking about the environmental aspect I decided to begin reverting to a wired lifestyle.

Of course it goes far beyond remotes, to the point where “batteries included” is a catchphrase of the consumer world.  We’re a world that won’t settle for listening to our preferred music in our own homes and cars, we have to have it with us at all times. We love to have everything portable, and that means batteries. Not only do we need iPads, but we need the latest one, plus an iPod and an iPhone and a laptop. 

Why do we need to lock and unlock our cars from a distance? They key always works and I don’t need he door unlocked until I get to the car! Remote starters are fun too, and they encourage us to let the car idle and warm up – wasting gas all the while – just because we’re too lazy to scrape a windshield.

Electronic stores are pushing the wireless products but a quick check online reveals that there is still quite a selection of “corded” phones and traditional computer desktops. Remotes are almost mandatory on consumer electronics and although you can operate the devices without them – some features are exclusively remote controlled. We’ve unthinkingly painted ourselves into a wireless corner, and we need action now.

And that’s a problem because governments are incredibly slow to act. Witness our hair-trigger reaction to the global warming crisis. But what if we actually started anticipating problems before they become widespread? What if new technologies and new products had to not only pass safety standards but …environmental standards! (Which are, of course, merely long- term safety standards.) What if we just said “no” to new products that threaten the environment before they take over our world - before they even hit the shelves? 

Wouldn’t this stifle economic growth and the gadget-producing creative process? Not in the least – it would inspire inventors and engineers to build disposal and safety into the product development process. It would create work. It would add value to products and turn creative energy towards more worthwhile and enduring consumer goods.  In facts it is already happening as several companies focus on better rechargeable and efficient battery storage and use. And that’s a good thing because there are situation in which wireless technology and battery powered are useful.

But while we wait patiently (or preferably, impatiently) for out governments to spot this on their radar screens, we as consumers need to get out there and think wired.