Design Issues: Is Sustainability just Recycling Deferred?

by Bruce Renfrew on November 18, 2010

Sustainability or recycling? – There’s a case for both approaches to dealing with the World’s runaway affair with personal possessions. But however we look at it, even the most durable of products will end up being recycled at some point, and therefore, sustainability is essentially about delaying the inevitable.  The problem with the concept of sustainable consumption lies in the consumers’ willingness or otherwise to embrace durability, in what is a largely fashion conscious, technology driven world.  Durability may be a fashionable design concept today but what of tomorrow?  New technology usually requires a new platform, so how do we achieve technical refreshment in an aging product? And how might we benefit from improved safety systems when we are saddled with a long-term product relationship? (Imagine how far behind the leading edge you would be now if the computer you were using had been manufactured in 2001!)

Physical durability is not really an issue these days – modern products built with modern materials are more than capable of lasting the 10-year benchmark set by advocates of sustainable consumption. Products with faulty parts fall into repair-or-replace categories according to their ‘write-off value’ and whilst it is probably not worth trying to save an electric kettle from recycling, modern thick film elements with overload protection will last for decades. Repairing may seem like an attractive alternative to junking, but warranty and safety issues have led manufacturers to ensure compliance with legislation by adopting factory sealed construction methods. And whilst it is true that all consumer products do have a finite life more often than not the fate of a product is determined not by its propensity to break down but rather by the vagaries of fashion and the users desire to refresh their possessions with the latest model.

If we accept the refreshment thesis then we should also accept that there are many products for which durability is largely an irrelevance. Take the mobile phone for example. In the last few years advances in technology have brought us tri-band network compatibility, built-in digital cameras, internet and email access and higher bandwidths making mobile video an unconvincing reality – follow this with multi-touch display/ interfaces, built in GPS, accelerometers, multimedia players and all the facilities of the latest smart technology and it’s obvious that a 10 year life is unrealistic. Many consumers will have changed their handsets a number of times to realise the latest advances, and unless they re-cycle their old phones as gifts to aging aunts, or recyclers supplying users in developing regions of the world, most of these devices will be collecting dust in the bottom of cupboards. And yet these handsets were probably exquisitely engineered and robustly constructed from expensive materials for a long, arduous life!!

Swatch pioneered the concept of high-tech mechanisms in low tech packaging 25 years ago. Although they were robust and brilliantly engineered, the cases of their ground-breaking mass-produced watches were then, and still are largely injection moulded. At the outset they were designed to see off competition from the newly emerging Japanese watchmakers and were attractive, affordable and of course, replaceable. Over the years they have acquired a unique fashion status celebrated by buyers for their high quality, low cost chic. And even though we often have an emotional attachment to these products as keepsakes, we do nonetheless continue to replace them regularly with newer models.

There is little doubt that the Mean Time to Failure of the plastic watch or the mobile phone, or similar, is anything less than sufficient to satisfy people who eschew fashion and keep their possessions for longer. But it is simply a waste of resources to over-design and over-engineer this class of product for such an eventuality. Consumers must be made aware of the environmental impact of excessive energy consumption in the products they replace regularly, and be encouraged to embrace fit-for-purpose packaging in the future. As the Swatch has already proven, products like watches, smart phones or tablets or cameras or indeed a whole host of devices at the cutting edge of technology, can and should be designed with realistic replacement schedules in mind, together with effective and easy to accept recycling programmes.

The concept of sustainability is fine for products where the embedded technology is so mature it has ceased to progress or where the manufacturers have anticipated technology advancement and made provision for upgrading, but the long term answer to our energy consumption problem must lie in designing fashion/tech products that celebrate their short life span and which are engineered for easy and efficient recycling. The worlds’ use of energy and materials will grow exponentially over the coming years – it is important that we, as manufacturers and designers, change the perception of value in consumer products in order to maximise our resources.


About the Author:
Bruce Renfrew is the Managing Director of Renfrew Group International who are a product design company based in the United Kingdom

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