Public Participation in Developing a Common Framework for Assessment and Management of Sustainable Innovation

Electronic Waste: Producers’ Responsibility?

Electronic Waste: Producers’ Responsibility?
17.01.2017 | Floridus Beck

Every year millions of tonnes of e-waste are produced worldwide. This number has always been growing since we started using electronic devices, but in the past decade the rise was higher than ever before. The relatively young segment of consumer electronics has surely added to the trend. But in the past ten years the fashion of fast electronics has spread even to household appliances, which had traditionally been less susceptible to changing aesthetics and constant innovations, such as washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, and especially smaller appliances such as irons, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers and TVs. (Find more information on this topic in German here.)

Have electronic appliances become less durable?

Undoubtedly, the prices of household appliances in relation to western household incomes have dropped in the past 50 years. But this is only one of the many reasons in a vicious circle of reasons. In a capitalistic economic system, suppliers wouldn\'t decrease prices if they weren\'t increasing profits at the same time. This means that they have to either increase revenues by selling more products or they have to reduce the total cost of their products. By lowering the prices, they are able to sell more products as also people with lower incomes are able to buy them. But selling a washing machine of an average lifespan of 30-50 years at a low price is not an adequate strategy for selling more products in the long run. Studies show that the lifespans of electronic devices have significantly dropped together with the prices. This is often justified with a needed reduction of cost of production in order to keep prices low and consequently the deterioration of the used material.

But is the reduction of cost a real threat to the longevity of electronic devices?

In our organization, the Repair- and Service-Centre (R.U.S.Z) in Vienna, we have found out from our everyday repair experience and our specialized product testing that the lifespan of appliances is not necessarily shortened due to cheaper raw materials or the way of production, but at least partly due to the fact that repairs are made more difficult and therefore expensive and not attractive for consumers compared to buying a new and cheap product instead.

Now one could say that suppliers have no choice than making repairs difficult if they want to keep selling new products. But as the world’s resources are getting scarcer, this way of doing business is not sustainable. My suggestion to those suppliers is to change their business models from a merely selling to a repair and service model. This way they could guarantee the long-time good quality of their devices by repairing, servicing and even selling innovative modules adaptable by the devices if possible, and build on their core competence as developers and producers of electronic devices by improving them instead of subjecting their design and production decisions to a fast sales strategy.

At the moment, producers are in the first place discouraging consumers from having their devices repaired, not even mentioning repairing them themselves. We see it as a first step towards saving resources to make consumers more confident of their own ability to repair and we want to re-enable them to repair at least some of their own electronic devices. In our weekly repair-café we show them the easiest repairs that they can do themselves. Also, the internet offers plenty of explanations for repair. 

Last but not least, I ask consumers to think twice or more times if they really want to exchange their washing machine, their TV or their mobile phone for a new one, or if they are willing to keep using it, have it repaired, repair it themselves or give it to someone who will.

Relevant themes: Raw materials, Resource efficiency, Sustainable innovation, Environment
Relevant tags: electronics, e-waste

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  • Floridus Beck - R.U.S.Z

    Floridus Beck
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