A report1 by the German Environment Agency (UBA), released in February 2016, highlights the pressures that an ever-shorter life span of electrical appliances and electronic devices is putting on the environment. The report recommends introducing a minimum period of service life, or durability, for these products to combat their impact on the environment and the climate.
The report, conducted by the Öko-Institut and Bonn University, and commissioned by the UBA has a triple purpose: to investigate usage duration and product life span patterns, to gather information on the influence of E&E products’ life span on the environment, as well as to develop a strategy to combat obsolescence. The product groups included in the study were: large household appliances (e.g. refrigerators, washing machines), small household appliances (e.g. hand mixers, kettles), information and communication technology (e.g. desktop PCs, printers, smartphones), and consumer electronics (televisions).
Consumers purchase a new household appliance, new computer, or cell phone for various reasons. Sometimes it’s because a product is broken and repairs would be inconvenient or too expensive. More often than not, consumers are driven by their passion for technological innovation in a particular product category, and the need to own the best or latest version of a particular product. This was the case for 75% of the people surveyed for this report.
E&E Product Replacement Trends
Investigations into the usage duration of products revealed a trend. A large number of household appliances were identified as being replaced within five years of ownership. Other statistics showed that between 2004 and 2013 the average service-life for the first user of a household appliance declined from 14.1 years to 13 years. Also, in 2004, 57.6% of large household appliances were replaced because of a defect. This dropped to 55.6% in 2012. A critical fact is that almost one third of these appliances were still functional at the time of their replacement.
A similar trend has been observed for consumer electronics, where flat screen TVs for example, had an average of 5.7 years of service-life for the first user in 2007, and this number went down to 4.4 years in 2010. Similarly, in 2012 over 60% of the flat screen TVs replaced were still functional.
Environmental Impact & Obsolescence
The manufacturing, bringing to market, usage and disposal of E&E products all have an impact on our environment and the climate. Products with shorter usage periods and life spans put greater pressure on our environment, compared to products that have a longer life. For example, for a five-year life span, the energy consumed and the global warming impact of washing machines is 40% higher when compared to a 20-year life span.
Since many of the products in the categories studied were replaced for a better model, the study also delved into different types of obsolescence: material, functional, psychological, economic with the goal of describing its causes and identifying a strategy to combat it. The report did not identify proof of planned obsolescence on the part of manufacturers, however, it revealed that manufacturers consider a specific lifetime for a product based on several factors such as product type, target consumers, consumers’ expectations for technological innovation, product usage scenarios and product cycles.
The recommendation2 of the report, as outlined by UBA’s President, Maria Krautzberger, is that “for the sake of consumers and the environment, a system of labelling which expresses the typical life expectancy of an appliance in hours of use would be beneficial”. This responsibility would fall on the shoulders of manufacturers, but consumers are not off the hook quite yet – their responsibility lies in making sure that a functional appliance or device that is replaced for a newer and better one is at least donated, exchanged or loaned as part of a municipal programme, which many cities have already implemented.
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