Consumer electronics have a shelf life

Electrical appliances: We are also to blame for their short service life

Whether washing machine, smartphone or television: we only use many electrical devices for a few years, then they end up in the garbage. But why? A study by the Federal Environment Agency now shows that it is not just the manufacturers' fault, our desire to always have the latest model also promotes the waste spiral.

Electrical devices eat up resources: Their production uses valuable raw materials and energy, and their disposal often pollutes the environment. Although the devices should actually be recycled and disposed of in an environmentally friendly way, researchers have found that disposal does not even work in the EU, let alone worldwide. Two thirds of the devices and electronics disposed of are illegally exported, end up in normal garbage or are stolen.

Researchers at the Öko-Institut and the University of Bonn have now investigated on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) how long German consumers use electrical devices and whether there are indications that manufacturers are deliberately making their products less durable. This so-called obsolescence can be achieved, for example, by deliberately building in weak points that wear out after a short period of use or otherwise render the device inoperable.

More defects, but no obsolescence?

But the results show that the manufacturers alone cannot be held responsible. In the case of large household appliances such as washing machines or refrigerators, the proportion of appliances that had to be replaced due to a defect in the first five years has increased. In the past ten years from 3.5 to 8 percent, according to the study. This also causes displeasure for around a third of consumers.

Indications of obsolescence on the part of the manufacturer were not found. There are, however, examples of a lifetime limitation built into the device design. An example are some inkjet printers that stop working after a period of time because some kind of residual ink receptacle is full. Cell phones or electric toothbrushes with a non-replaceable battery also force you to buy a new device early.

It always has to be the latest

But: We consumers are also to blame. Even with household appliances, in a third of the cases it was not a defect that was the reason for a new purchase, but rather the desire for a new, better device. And this is even more extreme with entertainment electronics: From smartphones to notebooks to flat screen televisions, many devices are being replaced even though they are still completely intact.

"60 percent of the televisions were replaced after five to six years, even though they were still working," says Oehme. And after all, 42 percent of consumers buy a new cell phone every two years - not because the old one is broken, but because they want it to. One of the reasons for this: Especially with televisions, computers and smartphones, the cycles in which new models and technologies come onto the market are very short. As a result, there is a growing tendency to buy new devices again and again - no matter how well the old one still works.

However, this leads to a fatal feedback: Because the manufacturers know that consumers buy a new device every few years anyway, they no longer test the devices so comprehensively and also save on quality. You calculate with a certain product lifespan, which is based on target groups, areas of application and product cycles. "Manufacturers and consumers interact with each other and mutually influence product developments and consumption patterns," explains Ines Oehme from the Federal Environment Agency.

"Ecologically questionable"

From the point of view of the Federal Environment Agency, this is questionable. Because in all of the product groups examined - be it televisions, notebooks or washing machines - short-lived products have a significantly greater impact on our environment than devices with a long service life. Take the washing machine, for example: In comparison, the energy consumption and greenhouse gas potential over the entire life cycle of a five-year-old machine are around 40 percent higher than that of a 20-year-old machine. A possible better energy efficiency is already taken into account.

“Many devices have too short a service life. From an ecological point of view, this is not acceptable, ”says UBA President Maria Krautzberger. “We have to think about minimum requirements for product lifespan and quality - a kind of minimum shelf life for electrical and electronic equipment.” At the same time, however, consumers are also required to use their devices longer.

What can you do?

As a solution to the problem, the study suggests a mix of strategies and instruments. In addition to the minimum requirements for service life, this also includes better reparability. Devices must be repairable in order to extend their lifespan. This includes, for example, a repair-friendly design and the availability of spare parts, which should also be accessible to non-manufacturer-bound workshops.

In addition, there is currently still a lack of transparency: “You can't tell from the product for which service life it was designed. The price is not always a reliable indicator either, ”says Krautzberger. The Federal Environment Agency therefore requires a label that indicates, for example, the expected service life of a device in hours of use and also provides information about wear parts and repair options.

And last but not least, we ourselves are also asked: Why not give away or sell your old cell phone instead of simply throwing it away? Initiatives and platforms for giving away, sharing, swapping and lending already exist in many cities.

Source: Federal Environment Agency (UBA), obsolescence study (PDF, 8 MB)

© - Nadja Podbregar
February 16, 2016