By Peter Robinson and Pierre Sadik
Last month President Obama delayed the introduction of digital television in the United States. In these tough economic times asking consumers to throw out their existing analogue TVs, or to spend a hundred dollars to buy an adaptor box, just didn't seem like a good political move.
A similar technological switch is, however, still underway at your neighbourhood video store. You may have noticed that every month your local video outlet allocates more and more space to the new Blu-ray DVD movies at the expense of regular DVDs, in a creeping campaign that rivals the pace of the retreating arctic ice shelf.
What's noteworthy about the change from DVD to Blu-ray and from analogue TV to digital HDTV is that the improvements in visual and audio quality are barely noticeable to most people. After all, this is not the giant leap in quality from phonograph record to compact disc, or even from VHS tape to DVD. Instead, this is an ever-so-subtle enhancement of the already exceptional viewing experience that regular DVDs provide, and a miniscule improvement in the very crisp picture of a 27-inch plasma screen TV.
In both instances the incentive for the electronics industry to promote the new format is obvious. In each case the existing technology is not compatible with the new format, necessitating that Canadians purchase new Blu-ray compatible DVD players and new digital televisions despite only very subtle improvements in the viewing experience.
But, there's absolutely nothing subtle about the millions of perfectly good DVD players and TVs that end up in the landfill as a result. More than 50 million items of electronic waste are discarded in Canada every year, ninety per cent of which are dumped in landfills or burned — usually in developing countries like China, India and parts of Africa. Our discarded products end up overseas leaving it to poorly paid workers, including children, to salvage a scant few parts for reuse. The rest of the product is dumped or burned, typically near workers' communities. Workers end up handling and even inhaling highly toxic metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium as well as flame retardant chemicals, something that would be illegal here in Canada.
However, something interesting has happened on the road to electronic conversion in the last few months. The delay of digital TV by President Obama means that electronic conversion has run up against economic contraction and the results may or may not be pretty, depending on your perspective.
It could even be suggested that the economic downturn may help save us from ourselves, at least in this one instance. It may give consumers and broadcasters pause for thought. Canadians might feel compelled to ask themselves whether they need to use scarce finances for yet another new format, when the improvement over the existing format is virtually non-existent. The downturn may represent a fortuitous speed bump on the road to the landfill laden with our perfectly good electronics.
One word of advice to electronics manufacturers: It would be in your enlightened self-interest to put the brakes on a strategy that allows frivolous and insignificant changes in technology to drive changes in format. Otherwise government, acting in the public interest, may inevitably do so for you.
Some jurisdictions including the European Union as well as Ontario are already moving in that direction. Both jurisdictions are addressing the collection, treatment, and end-of-life materials recovery of electronic products.
In Ontario industry will be responsible for cradle-to-grave stewardship of their products. Manufacturers will finance the collection and subsequent processing, resource recovery, and safe disposal of residual materials. The intent is to give the industry an incentive to both design their products in such a way as to lengthen their initial useful life, and make eventual end-of-life processing as easy as possible. The final objective is to move beyond mere cradle-to-grave product responsibility to a cradle-to-cradle system, taking a U-turn away from the landfill all together.
Peter Robinson is the CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation.
Pierre Sadik is a senior policy advisor with the David Suzuki Foundation