Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Environment: Are Disposable Appliances coming to an end?

Last September, this blog posted some commentary of how present day home appliances are doing more harm to the environment than good. The Energy Star logo slapped on many home electronics like dishwashers, toasters, vacuum cleaners, ovens, and washing machines becomes meaningless whenever a very minor breakdown or compatibility issue occurs.

Today, such small problems force users to replace the whole unit in lieu of having the issue repaired. So-called e-waste recycling programs goes unregulated in developing countries, causing devastating environmental injustice and worker injuries in de-manufacturing areas.

There is growing evidence that this damaging trend may be ending thanks to innovators, open source software engineers, small business entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and a growing pool of users demanding "Enough!"... It's just a matter of time.

Public officials need to debate incentives to get the private sector to move on these ideas here at home so that these ideas can materialize in the marketplace. However, large corporations continue to deny the environmental problem by pushing the sales of new units at the cost of saving and repairing existing ones. Right now, there is no question that Americans are forced to throw out appliances and electronics for dumb reasons. A few examples:

Having to Replace the Broken Quiet Series Dishwasher

This Maytag Quiet Series 300 dishwasher has a broken down control panel. A minor issue on its circuit board is preventing the push buttons from functioning. However, replacing the faulty circuits or damaged wires involves much more than finding the spare parts at the local Home Depot or Radio Shack. The control panel is connected to the rest of the unit using non-traditional Torx screws, thus requiring the user to have the Torx bits or driver. Also, the circuits and firmware used for the dishwasher are proprietary. Because such parts can fall out of support by the manufacturer, replacement circuits are more difficult to attain. That drives up repair costs beyond the purchase price of a new unit, forcing the user to replace the machine. Will its de-manufacturing process be "Quiet" in the environment? We'll let you make the call.

"Unsupported" Functioning Computer Printers

This next problem really caught our attention. Both of these all-in-one laser printers, made less than a decade ago, function perfectly except for one very minor issue. They don't work on computers that use present-day 64-bit Windows operating systems which includes the majority of Windows 7 and Windows 8 machines. They function flawlessly on Windows XP.

The only thing Canon and HP had to do was release a basic software driver so that everyday users could simply plug it into their computers and get to work. Because the corporate focus was on selling brand new models, the excuse here is that the product is "no longer supported"; therefore no software driver for 64-bit Windows systems. To be fair, users can still use the units as copiers and fax machines, but they cannot print from or scan directly to the computer, rendering the functioning all-in-one printers useless for many users. Open-source software engineers are working on this compatibility problem and have been able to get open-source Linux operating systems to get these older units working once more with newer computers, but most of the solutions are not yet ready for prime time and are in no way set up for everyday users to understand.

By the way, if you're in a position where you have to clean the scanner's lamp mirrors or replace the glass on the HP unit, good luck. Although the unit uses common Phillips screws, nearly the entire outer shell has to be disassembled in order to remove the glass panel and the lamp. The whole assembly process can take over an hour.

Boy, it is hard to fix things nowadays.

Combating the Environmental Injustice and the Disposable Appliance Culture

Despite these discouraging facts, we believe the days of environmentally destructive disposable electronics is coming to an end, possibly by the end of the decade. How so? Thanks to new innovative ideas combined with the ongoing growth in the open-source software movement, electronics with user-repairable parts are well on their way of making their way back to the marketplace. When will it be prime-time? That's speculation. But what's not speculation is that the "unsupported printer" or "unsupported part" will one day be no more. Users will one day have plenty of affordable alternative options to fix broken down electronics instead of throwing them out. More on that on Friday.


  1. A, Linux is totally ready for prime time, and setting up an HP printer (any HP printer, ever) with Linux is an order of magnitude easier than setting it up for Windows. Linux has this reputation of being just for geeks, and there are certainly distros that are geeks-only, but a recent copy of Ubuntu or Linux Mint is more user-friendly than Windows.

    But B, I had this same problem crop up a few days ago. Perfectly functional Canon multi-function printer, drivers that no longer work with current versions of Linux, proprietary non-standard wireless printing protocol that nothing else speaks. A new Epson printer, which speaks the standard LPD protocol, is on its way.

    1. We've worked with Ubuntu and it is very close--we mean very close--to being prime-time ready and we predict it be competing strongly in the marketplace very soon against Windows and the Mac OS just like Android is competing well against the iPhone. It's just a matter of time and gaining additional support.

      Android and the Firefox browser did it. Linux OS's are fully live in the Internet business. However, the print drivers and the desktop Linux OS for end-users still have some very minor maturing to do, but as you've pointed, Ubuntu has come a long way and it and many other Linux solutions are almost there!