- Wayne Conrad
The Problem with Designing Disposable Products
There was a time when the “durable” in durable goods really meant something. In the 1950s through 1970s, a period of growing prosperity, many people made a good wage producing products designed to last a lifetime. Products were made with repair in mind. During the repair process, many components were exchanged and then re-manufactured for future use.
Refrigerators, washers, dryers, record players, etc. were all designed to provide lasting value. While this resulted in higher-priced goods, workers had the opportunity for higher paying jobs and thus a balance was struck. Consumers saved for a period of time and then purchased quality goods designed to last for decades.
Times have changed, but not for the betterment of the environment. We now live in a world where products are designed for very short life cycles and are considered subsequently disposable. These products are often manufactured in remote parts of the world by contractors, part-time workers, or low-wage, blue-collar workers who themselves are considered as a transient, disposable-like, part of the production process. The move to lower-cost, lower-quality goods, ostensibly cheaper for more people to afford them, has ironically led to a shift in manufacturing to lower-cost, overseas factories, leaving North American workers with fewer high-paying jobs and less ability to buy these very goods. This, in turn, has led to the demand for even lower-cost product as the working class struggles to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. This cycle of continuous deterioration of product durability and life-span has led us to where it is now perfectly acceptable to discard a so-called durable goods when it is worn out and broken. Who cares about all of the valuable raw material, energy and labour that went into it. Consider plastic. It is an amazing material that can, and should, be reused over and over again. Plastic need never be considered garbage and carelessly thrown away. The challenge with recycling it is that it is often attached to, or contaminated by, other materials such as batteries.
For example, wireless earbuds for listening to music are often made of plastic which is glued in place around a battery and some electronics. The design did not consider what would become of the product at its end of life, which is often only one to three years from inception. The toxic batteries inside the plastic shell create an environmental nightmare. Convenience and low price have come with a cost! But there are approaches on the horizon that can help. For instance, Omachron has developed methods and equipment to enable the remanufacture of plastics without any significant degradation to the final product. Further, Omachron is developing a wide range of technologies to enable the separation of plastic, metal, glass, batteries and electronics, facilitating their subsequent recycling and re-manufacture.
We can make a real difference by lobbying product designers and manufacturers to go back to making items that last. Items that can be repaired and/or recycled and reused easily. In instances where the original product is no longer functional, we can still make a difference by recapturing and reusing the valuable resources within them.