THE BLOG
02/03/2011 07:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Long Should Electronics Last? My Calculator, the E-Hero

My guest room closet is filled with dead electronics waiting to be recycled, but I marvel at my nearly 30-year-old calculator. It still works, and so do the original batteries.

I have yet to find an expert who can explain how this is possible, but every month when I balance my checkbook (do other people still do this?) my calculator gives me the correct answers. My calculator is so old it's listed on a website called Vintage Calculators. The original AA batteries are so old they are Made in Japan. Yet, they still work.

I've become emotionally attached to my Sharp EL-505 ELSI Mate.

While shiny and new is nice, I hope I'm not alone in appreciating craftsmanship and durability -- in electronics too. I bought my first Apple laptop six years ago because a colleague was so happy with his experience, he raved and raved until I jumped from my PC ship.

I know this Apple evangelism is not unusual and I'm not holding Apple up as perfect, and neither is Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics. But it's worth noting that a company can drive new sales not by planned obsolescence (ensuring that products will have a short life span so customers must buy new ones), but because superior craftsmanship and durability are their own sales tools and have the power to create new customers.

"People used to take real pride in longevity," a man named Jim Puckett told me. "'Wow, this Rolex is still going strong after 30 years.' That was a source of pride. Now people are looking for the latest and greatest. The incentive is not there (for products) to last a long time."

This is important to Jim, because as head of the Basel Action Network, he works every day with the dark side of electronics. As B.A.N. and CBS' 60 Minutes showed in a heartbreaking investigation, our old computers, cell phones and other e-equipment contain many hazardous materials that often end up shipped to countries with weak controls. There, they poison the poor and vulnerable who "recycle" them.

There's a world of reasons for industry and customers to seek new business models and better stewardship over e-production, e-gadgets and e-waste.

In the Congo, one of the world's most brutal wars is financed by the mining of tin, tantalum (coltan), tungsten and gold, some of the rare minerals that power our iPods, cell phones, laptops and other devices. Then there's the increasing concern over supply. The New York Times recently reported that China is tightening controls on the export of the rare earth minerals that are essential ingredients in everything from smart phones to military applications and new green technology, including electric cars and solar panels. And that control has the potential to disrupt markets.

Or as Tech Radar asked: Yes, these ingredients are hazardous to mine and dangerous to manufacture, "But what if they run out?"

Puckett told me of the need to develop new business models to improve product durability and stewardship, and of the need for companies to produce products with less hazardous materials as well as to properly recycling them at the end of their life span.

Creating newer, faster and cooler electronics is still the focus over creating products that last. But I've found small signs in my personal life of the durability of some e-products, and of manufacturers who consider some of the mistakes that I and other consumers make.

My cell phone lasted for years, even though I dropped it fairly often. On asphalt sidewalks as well as my living room floor. I appreciated that it was built for my "real world conditions." The flip phone finally died when I left it in a jacket pocket and did the laundry. Both the wash and dry cycles.

My Apple laptop endured years of daily and heavy use for entertainment and work, for music, movies and spreadsheets. I never spilled coffee or anything else on it. But I once got tangled in the power cord and knocked the laptop off the table. It survived.

It would have lasted longer than five years if I hadn't, on one pre-coffee morning, lost my grip walking down the stairs.

Then there's my calculator. I will miss it when the magic eventually fades and the batteries finally fail. After 27 years or so, every time I turn it on, I wonder "How long can this last?"

Only recently have I had the flicker of a new idea: Will it outlast me?

At midlife, I figure I have a possible 30 or 40 years ahead of me. And my Sharp EL-505 -- how many years does it have? How durable can we make our machines?