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Fighting electronic waste: How Polaroid made it into the 21st century

Published: 27 September 2021

The ever-growing mountain of waste from electronics and other tech is a big problem for the environment—but one that can be tackled with creative thinking. Polaroid photography enthusiasts’ campaign to keep their cameras out of the landfill reveals how we can keep using obsolete tech.

E-waste and the right to repair

Summer 2021 saw the UK’s ‘Right to Repair’ bill come into action, making manufacturers legally obliged to make spare parts for products available to consumers. The aim is to ‘extend the lifespan of products by up to 10 years’, in an attempt to reduce the 1.5 million tonnes of electrical waste created by UK households every year. Discussing the bill, Philip Dunne MP noted that ‘cracking down on planned obsolescence in electrical items is key to tackling the e-waste tsunami’.

A large e-waste dump in Accra, Ghana

As new and more sophisticated photographic technologies continue to be produced at an unprecedented speed, older ones considered less advanced end up forgotten in cupboards, attics, or worse, landfills. But what would happen if a group of committed enthusiasts managed to save their favourite photographic technologies from this fate? Polaroid photography enthusiasts are doing just this, showing it’s possible to keep our tech in operation long after it was designed to become obsolete.

Instant film, instant fun: A brief history of Polaroid

Polaroid is a photographic icon and one of the Western world’s better-known brands. Synonymous with instant, fun photography, for many years Polaroid also stood for groundbreaking technology and innovation. 

Created in 1937 by Harvard drop-out turned inventor Edwin Land, Polaroid turned Kodak’s ‘you take the picture, we do the rest’ principle into ‘you take the picture, the camera does the rest’. Polaroid cut out the middleman from the photographic equation to provide people with instant photography. This allowed for novel uses of the technology such as in forensics, as well as new ways of experiencing photography as a social activity.

The possibility of experiencing photographic images after just a few minutes, passing them around or giving them as gifts, created a new relationship between the photographer and their subject.

Land cameras

Regardless of its popularity—by 1983 it was estimated that 46.3% of American households owned a self-developing camera—the late 1980s saw a decline that continued until the 2000s, when the Polaroid Corporation declared bankruptcy twice, sold most of its manufacturing sites around the world, and declared that film production was coming to an end.

Digital photography is often seen as the culprit, but was really just the last nail in the coffin—the Corporation’s problems began many years before the arrival of digital technology. 

What is planned obsolescence?

The idea of designing things to become obsolete gained momentum with Bernard London’s 1932 plan to ‘end depression through planned obsolescence’. London observed that in the wake of the Great Depression, poverty and financial constraints meant people were holding on to their goods much longer than expected, leading to decreasing consumption. 

To tackle this, he proposed the government implement a series of policies that would force consumers to hand in their old appliances and commodities and buy new ones, thereby stimulating the economy. By creating a legal use-by date, London intended to ‘tax the man who holds things for a longer time than originally allotted’. 

Although London’s proposal was never implemented, his notion of balancing production and consumption through planned obsolescence pervaded and continues today.

Wasteful future: Obsolescence and photographic technology

With nobody to manufacture the film once the Polaroid Corporation folded, the millions of Polaroid cameras in the world were suddenly declared obsolete. But Polaroid practitioners weren’t going to let that happen: they worked together to create petitions and pleaded with the company to save the format. 

Cameras becoming obsolete was something that resonated among Polaroid practitioners, who besides campaigning started to look for hands-on solutions themselves. Andy, a long-term Polaroid practitioner working in South-East London recalls how, upon hearing the news of Polaroid stopping film production, his first thought was for ‘all the perfectly operative cameras that would end up in landfills’. His response was to start work on a system to retrofit Polaroid cameras to work with other film formats. 

This sort of ingenuity wasn’t a new practice. Polaroid practitioners have been upcycling their cameras for a long time. For example, Polaroid Land cameras were reworked to fit new batteries, and plastic cartridges for peel-apart film were changed for original metal ones to avoid jamming. 

The (almost) Impossible Project: How people saved Polaroid

Upon hearing the news of film discontinuation, Polaroid enthusiasts frantically bought film until it was no longer available. In the meantime, different groups gathered online, pleading for someone to save Polaroid. 

The answer came in the shape of two people: Andre Bosman, former Polaroid factory manager, and Florian Kaps, a Polaroid wholesaler and confessed Polaroid lover. In 2008 they sat outside the last factory in Enschede, The Netherlands, while they secured the funds to purchase the last factory and created The Impossible Project.

Impossible project images

Once the transaction had been made, they needed to downscale and restart film production—not an easy task. All Polaroid manufacturing sites had closed, including the chemical, battery, and negative sites, and there was no place to source the much-needed materials. This started a two-year experimentation process with many iterations, and in 2010 The Impossible Project released their first film batch. Although a long way from the original Polaroid film, it enabled people to shoot the format once again.

There have been lots more developments since then. In 2017 The Impossible Project became Polaroid Originals. They have released several new cameras and film formats, but also continue to manufacture integral film—the 3.1x3.1-inch white-framed photograph that made Polaroid photography an icon—for original Polaroid cameras.

On a separate adventure, Florian Kaps and Andreas Holler set up Supersense—an all-analogue project in Vienna where different analogue technologies are available to the public. For example, they hold the very large 20x24 Polaroid camera, a format used by well-known American artist Chuck Close.

One of Kaps’ latest adventures in saving obsolete technology has been peel-apart film. Kaps led a global online campaign to save the format, which was made to work with 1960s Polaroid Land cameras and discontinued by Fujifilm in 2016.

Unable to source the machinery to reproduce the film format, they resorted to completely manual methods to produce One Instant, a hand-made peel-apart film made to work with classic pack film cameras. Though not the same as the original film or at the same price point, One Instant has allowed practitioners to continue to use cameras that otherwise would have ended up in landfills.

Black polaroid camera Science Museum Group Collection
Polaroid One Step 600 camera (1981), compatible with the Impossible and Polaroid Originals 600 film

Reducing tech waste—what the future holds

Repair and upcycling techniques, along with the UK’s right to repair legislation, show that there’s real interest in tackling waste and heading towards more sustainable electronic consumption. And although the new integral film and peel-apart film are not the same as the originals and therefore don’t produce the same results, both projects show that in the hands of driven communities, planned obsolescence can be challenged and contested. 

Of course, neither Polaroid nor other analogue photographic technologies are zero waste, and they have environmental impacts—whether the use of plastic cartridges and batteries that are not currently recyclable, or chemicals that might damage the environment. At the same time, many smartphones and digital cameras are extremely hard to repair (and the Right to Repair bill doesn’t include them), which means going digital doesn’t solve the waste problem.

The answer seems to lie in balancing consumption and waste, and empowering people to take (repair) matters into their own hands. Rather than accepting the rising tide of avoidable waste, we can take inspiration from these novel upcycling methods and ingenuity in sourcing parts and consumables—and keep our things out of landfill.

Further reading

Books

  • Rhiannon Adam, Polaroid: The Missing Manual, 2017
  • Christopher Bonanos, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, 2012
  • Peter Buse, The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography, 2016
  • Florian Kaps, Polaroid: The Magic Material, 2016

Online

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