Let's make laptops from radium. How's that for planned obsolescence?

Come on, guys, get a half-life

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Its international reputation trashed by Brexit shenanigans, the UK government has been desperately trying to distract its citizens with a promise to extend the ban on single-use plastic products. It all began with disposable carrier bags. But now they're clutching at straws.

It is the great contradiction that defines our era: you can't actually get rid of disposable products. Instead, they last forever and ever, floating around the oceans and blowing across the plains long after we'll have gone. Disposable culture is only partly to blame.

I remember as a child, while accompanying my father during his lecturing contract at the University of Cairo, being taken to visit the depths of a labyrinthine tomb in the Valley of the Kings. As I tiptoed across the dimly torchlit chamber, my foot squelched unpleasantly into a small heap of creepy weird stuff at the head of the sarcophagus. I looked down in horror to see…

… an empty Coke can and a wet packet of crisps.

I suspect today there are polystyrene kebab boxes nestling around the base of Rano Raraku moai, unspooled C-90s rustling in the forest branches of the Amazon, and fizzy drinks bottles on the trail leading all the way to the summit of Mount Everest. But there's nothing new about human littering; this has always been the way. All the cracked pottery filling up archaeological museums and boring schoolchildren shitless is testament to that.

The problem, as we can all now recognise, is that most artificially manufactured materials tend not to degrade or decompose very effectively, if at all. You don't have to be an eco-warrior or allotment trooper to imagine how this issue is, literally, piling up trouble for the immediate future.

Even world leaders living in the fantasy bliss of climate-change denial agree this much. Inner-city pollution? Pah! What the planet really needs to do is find a solution for the plastic Garfield telephones that have been terrorising Brittany beachcombers for three decades.

Tell 'em you're sick of sucking tailpipes and they'll laugh at you for being a snowflake. But flick a microbead at them and they shrivel in horror.

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I think we're missing a trick here. Unsustainably disposable products are what capitalist economies are based on, after all, and logic suggests the two ought to work hand in hand. What if consumer products were fabricated to be actually disposable rather than just conceptually so?

Take the admittedly hackneyed example of certain Apple iOS products artificially slowing down hardware performance after a year or so in order to prolong the life of the fixed battery. By amazing coincidence, this can convince owners that it's time to upgrade to a faster new model. Cynics call it "planned obsolescence", right?

Now bear with me. Back at school at the end of the 1970s after my return from the aforementioned Egyptian adventure, I had an Economics teacher who would muse how much fun it would be if cash was made from radioactive isotopes with a short half-life. He wasn't hoping to irradiate the population so much as to see what might happen to consumer spending habits if everyone knew they had to dispose of their pay packet before it blinked out of existence.

Reality seemed to come within a whisper of my nutso teacher at the beginning of 2019 when I read that digital banking services company Cashplus had developed a credit/debit card made from biodegradable PVC. No more expiry dates! Just keep spending right up until the microbes eat holes through the signature strip!

This anecdote came back to me again this week while UK.Gov's uber-twat of an environment minister was droning on through my radio speaker about banning plastic drinking straws. When I was a toddler, drinking straws weren't made from plastic unless you went to a really posh restaurant, such as, er, a Little Chef. No, they were usually made from tubes of cheap, greasy paper. If you didn't finish your miniature glass bottle of lukewarm milk quickly, the straw would get unpleasantly fuzzy at either end. You'd have to bite off a piece and try to keep going with whatever stubby length remained.

I often wondered whether one fix for this problem would have been to make drinking straws from that crisp, shiny, medicated paper that you'd find issued in public toilets. The prime minister of the day, however, chose the alternative solution: stop providing schoolchildren with free milk.

Still, the principle of manufacturing products from fast-degrading materials could, to coin a phrase, strike two politicians with the same milkshake. Rather than wasting all that R&D expense on coming up with better hardware – or at least PR expense tricking customers into believing that's what you've done – manufacturers could design products that actually need replacing.

No more thinking up hidden ways for your branded kit to slow down and eventually stop working! Just build them so they physically fall to bits after a pre-determined period!

OK, that's hardly a new idea: I've spent enough of my own money on Belkin products that did that already. What I had in mind was the materials themselves beginning to decompose even as the gadgets roll off the production line.

Just imagine: the next time you have to buy a new laptop, there'd be no need to cart the old one off to a recycling centre having painstakingly scrubbed the disk with zeroes and ones three times. You could just pop your obsolete laptop in your compost bin alongside the grass cuttings, egg shells and potato peel.

And in the event that a customer tries to replace a rotting video card for a new one or attempts to apply anti-mould treatment to the chipsets, there could be a range of DIY-disincentives built in to the hardware. Or "booby traps", if you like.

I was thinking about that bloke in Texas earlier this year who crawled under his home in order to fix his cable TV only to find himself surrounded by 45 rattlesnakes. I reckon you could fit a baby taipan into a laptop, cable-tie a black mamba around a server blade, and stuff a smartphone with tiny scorpions. Or maybe just fit one of those tamper-proof exploding ink bubbles you find pinned onto clothing labels, but filled with Alien blood.

That way consumerist capitalism preserves the culture of relentless replacement upgrades while also preserving the planet. It's a win-win for western economies!

Better still, after screwing us all for more money, the corporates would have to spend their ill-gotten but landfill-friendly gains damn quickly before it all decays into radon gas. And best of all, I'll no longer have to listen to CEOs with American accents at launch events talking about "allooooominum".

Who needs plastic?

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He would like to apologise straight away for the inevitable offence he has caused by writing this week's column. He accepts that the topic of decomposition is in very poor taste as it evidently mocks dead people for dying and laughs at their grieving relatives for knowing them. @alidabbs

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