Product durability put on the map

Too much weight is being given to recycling in the debate on the Government's waste management strategy, according to a report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF).1 Pride of place should, it says, be given to minimising waste and pollution at source by increasing product durability.

Official threats of "take back" regulations and "producer responsibility" programmes in the last few years have given rise to many recycling initiatives but little interest in making products last longer. In fact, the NEF suggests, "the trend for many consumer products, including cars, cookers, vacuum cleaners and small electrical appliances, has been towards shorter life."

The markets for many durable goods such as televisions, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners are now saturated (see figure ). The NEF concludes that manufacturers are dependent on replacement sales and fear that longer lasting products would reduce their future income. In addition, they are also concerned that higher prices for more durable goods would deter consumer demand.

To counter this picture, the report cites examples of firms that have thrived on a reputation for making durable goods, including leading car manufacturers such as Volvo, Mercedes Benz and Land Rover. Finnish white goods producer ASKO offers washing machines designed to last for 15 years with a 5-year guarantee on parts and labour. And Scottish hi-fi manufacturer Linn says its products are designed to be upgradable.

The NEF stresses that in recommending increased product durability, it is not proposing maximising a product's life span, but rather optimising it.

"Durability should not be treated as an end in itself. There must be allowance for the fact that the gradual replacement of outmoded models may bring environmental gains, especially if the environmental performance of products is improved through technological advance."

It cites the example of Porsche which, having studies the potential for prolonging the life of its cars, concluded that while a life of 25-30 years was possible, the optimal life span would in fact be 18-25 years. Porsche also calculated that "if cars were built to last for 18-25 years there would be a 55% saving in materials."

The environmental gains offered by durability are reduced throughput of energy and materials, resulting in less use of finite resources, lower emissions of pollutants and less waste to be disposed of in landfill. In particular, the benefits exceed those from recycling because after-sales maintenance of products can be carried out locally, whereas recycling necessarily incurs environmental penalties through its collection and distribution elements.

The main environmental argument against longer product life is that the potential of technological innovations offering greater energy efficiency or other benefits may be lost. However, the NEF argues that "even so, it is extremely doubtful that improved energy performance could justify replacing a functioning product." It cites the conclusion of Sweden's vehicle testing authority that the extra energy involved in replacing a car is likely to offset the improved fuel efficiency of a newer model.

Moreover, the report notes that manufacturers mostly do no update products in order to boost their environmental performance. Where they do so, other novel features sometimes offset improvements in efficiency - such as automatic de-frost facilities on refrigerators.

Among the measures recommended by the report are that the Government should shift taxation from labour to resources, and require longer product guarantees and information on product life-spans on labels.

The NEF faces an uphill struggle. In October, the Government blocked a move to put legal obligations upon manufacturers to indicate products' life spans on labels and to provide a minimum spare parts and after sales service (ENDS Report 237, p 28 ).

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