Course Blog

Materials that can live and die

Old Phones in a landfill
Intolerable Beauty: Cell phones #2 – Chris Jordan, Atlanta 2005 

Planned Obsolescence

One of the biggest source of our technological wastes comes from planned obsolescence, this picture is from a series of photographs from Chris Jordan called “Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption” [1]. He travelled around the USA to show people what happened with their discarded technology. The concept of planed obsolescence is used by almost all tech manufacturers today. For small or no progress we are expected to buy the new product as support for the old one slows down and stops. This is very apparent in the phone industry where at least one model every year per manufacturer has become commonplace. Our old phones now become waste, because Apple, Samsung or Google decided to abandon them. This concept of “abandonware” is also an issue in Software Engineering, where it – luckily – produces no physical waste.

Combating waste

While we do not plan to force anyone to make new products while the old ones are still usable, we can introduce a change to the material to not only decrease technological waste through planned obsolescence, but waste in general. A material that has a (triggerable) life-death cycle by causing the material to either decompose, or transform into very easily recyclable material would solve problems in waste management, recycling and the environment. Imagine buying the newest iPhone and you, or Apple triggering the death of the old one, salvaging the recyclable parts in the process. A very basic approach of this is already done by the German mobile phone company Shift, whose ShiftPhone comes with a device deposit where, after you are finished using it, the phone gets disassembled, recycled or upcycled.

There has been some research into triggering decomposition in bio materials, for example Rineau et al [3], who studied fungal decomposing plant litter, which could be triggered by the addition of glucose. Similar processes could be used to introduce a trigger for the decomposition of the materials.


[1] Jorden, C (2005) Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption

[2] SHIFT GmbH (2018)

[3] Rineau, F., Shah, F., Smits, M. M., Persson, P., Johansson, T., Carleer, R., … & Tunlid, A. (2013). Carbon availability triggers the decomposition of plant litter and assimilation of nitrogen by an ectomycorrhizal fungus. The ISME journal7(10), 2010.