Every product has an optimal life cycle

© Wayne Stadler: "Now and Forever". www.flickr.com (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Buy, use, throw away – the cycle that drives the consumer society turns ever faster. People who try to slow down this dynamic see themselves as helping the environment. However, when the product itself becomes a source of pollution, its replacement can have real benefits from every perspective.

Yvonne von Hunnius, 27.1.2016

“These shoes are life-long companions,” says shoemaker René Hess referring to old Swiss army shoes. As a shoemaker who has been working in Winterthur for over 25 years he knows all about long and short product life cycles. Nowadays, even expensive shoes often do not last very long. Manufactured using fast injection-moulding technology, many mid-soles have insulation materials made of special plastic, which quickly becomes  brittle and cracks. Moreover, the entire shoe is often processed in such a way that it is difficult to separate the individual components. Hess increasingly finds himself telling customers that it is not worth their while financially to mend their shoes. And yet, from an environmental perspective, regular repairs should be the best solution for products like shoes which can be used for long periods.

Replacement pays in many cases

This is not the case with all products, however. Sometimes replacing something with a new product is the best option. So when is it better to replace an old appliance with a new one to protect the environment? Anders Gautschi, a consumption and products expert from the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), says: “It is important to take the environmental impact generated over the entire life cycle into account, that is during the manufacture, use and disposal of a product.” Hence the answer to this question depends on whether a product generates the greatest impact during production – for example through the consumption of energy, materials and water – or whether its impact is greater during its use – for example, in the case of a continuously running fridge. How the product is disposed of is also important. Gautschi was involved the compilation of a report on the optimisation of the life cycle and operating life of products by the FOEN. One of the insights arising from the report is that we should hold on to products that have a minimal impact on the environment when in use. This applies to furniture and shoes. However, if a product also has a large ecological footprint during its use or operation, its replacement with a new model can offer certain advantages. This applies to electrical appliances like fridges.

Nevertheless, it is not essential that old fridges be disposed of immediately. If a fridge is in constant use in the kitchen, it makes sense to get a new one. However, it can still provide a good service if it is installed in the cellar for occasional use, e.g. parties. According to Gautschi, the principle behind this approach is that “if an appliance generates a greater environmental impact during use than it would during production and disposal, replacing it with an ecologically superior model makes sense.”

Life Cycle Assessments: transparency needed

This rule of thumb can help – as can basic common sense. However, as Raffael Wüthrich from the Stiftung für Konsumentenschutz, SKS (Foundation for Consumer Protection) sees it, one important requirement is lacking: transparency. He criticises the fact that: “With some products it is often unclear how long they can be used on average, how long replacement parts are available for and whether the products can actually be repaired.” Information about environmental impacts is only available for some products in the form of energy labels. However, a life cycle assessment (LCA) needs more than an energy certificate.

A lot of processes have now been initiated to enable companies to identify the data they need for life cycle assessments and how they can produce the assessments on the basis of standard rules. At European level, in particular, a lot of intensive work is being carried out on developing general conditions for LCAs. And it’s not a moment too soon as a backlog exists for many products. If price is the main concern, product developers focus primarily on cheap materials and production. However, a higher price does not always provide a guarantee of superior quality. Concepts like ecodesign help to incorporate ecological efficiency into the design of products. As FOEN expert Gautschi sees it, the roadmap has been clearly defined: “Product developers must be given the necessary knowledge and skills during training and consumers must be as well informed as possible,” he says. This also means involves developing products in a modular way so that individual components are easy to replace.

Franke Coffee Systems produzieren Geräte für den Profi-Bereich. Das aktuelle Modell A600 reinigt sich teils automatisch, dennoch sind alle Komponenten leicht entnehmbar. Die Maschine arbeitet gleichzeitig eingegebene Aufträge nacheinander ab.
© Franke

Quality compatible with repair

Many Swiss companies have been aware of this approach for a long time. Switzerland gets its daily coffee fix from around 10,000 fully automatic Franke coffee makers. Thanks to their knowledge of ecodesign, Franke’s developers can constantly play around with the product design to improve electricity and water consumption in new appliances. “We also provide a maintenance pledge as our appliances are investments intended for many years of use,” says Christof  Hurni, Technology Vice President at Franke Kaffeemaschinen AG. Replacement parts for Franke machines are provided for ten years at annual maintenance checks. However, in many cases the coffee machines continue to work for much longer than this. “In all cases, the decision as to whether or not to replace a functioning appliance is also an emotional one for the customer.”

Household appliances manufacturer V-ZUG also pleads for allowing the customer to decide whether and when to replace a product with a more resource-conserving one. Philipp Hofmann, Director of Global Marketing Services at V-ZUG explains: “We guarantee the provision of replacement parts for up to 15 years after purchase. In this way we ensure that an appliance can still be repaired even if it has been in use for many years. This can be the right decision for the environment if the product does not get a lot of use.”

Dani Arnold, Bergsteiger
Der Bergsteiger Dani Arnold, der die Matterhorn Nordwand in neuer Rekordzeit von einer Stunde und 46 Minuten durchstiegen ist, nutzt Outdoor-Equipment von Mammut natürlich intensiver als ein Freizeitsportler. Auch davon hängt die Dauer des Produktlebens ab.
© Photopress/Mammut (Foto: Christian Gisi)

High-tech materials need attention

In the case of outdoor products, a long life cycle is definitely better for the environment from an ecological perspective. “This is our philosophy too,” says Reto Rüegger, a product manager with Swiss mountain sports equipment manufacturer Mammut. The environmental impacts generated by the use of the company’s products are negligible – the manufacturing and transport processes are far more crucial for both the product and user. But how long does a hiking boot last? According to Rüegger, there is no one answer to this question: it depends on how well the boot is looked after, where it is used and for how long. Optimised high-tech materials which are complicated to produce should enable the tailoring of products to specific customer requirements, the use of the products for extended periods and their recycling at the end of their life cycle. Mammut stores in Switzerland have been providing collection boxes for used outdoor equipment since 2010. Around of 70 percent of the sometimes valuable materials they contain are recycled. Moreover, as Rüegger reports: “There is a development in the pipeline in the shoe sector which will bring about a real advance in the efficiency of the manufacture, sustainability and processing of the materials.” 

Help with DIY repair

Sometimes it does not take much to get a defective product to work again. At repair cafés, anyone who wants to take matters in hand themselves can obtain help and support free of charge from professional fixers. The Stiftung für Konsumentenschutz (SKS) made an important contribution to establishing this movement in Switzerland. Corresponding initiatives regularly organize repair events throughout Switzerland. Thanks to this help with DIY repairs some products can be saved from ending up in the bin due to relatively minor faults.

Links:
http://repaircafe.org/de/
https://www.konsumentenschutz.ch/repaircafe/schweizer-repair-cafes/

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Last modification 27.01.2016

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