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Beyond Recycling Current Priorities

Recycling is fashionable. However, as car manufacturers, for example, begin to take back old cars for recycling, the temptation is there to produce less durable cars so that the market will always be awash with new ones. Along with recycling, the emphasis must equally be on durability. The problem is that recycling is photogeneic and the fruits of political action on recycling normally appear within an election cycle. Durability legislation, while more benificial, is less visible and will produce less votes.
By Tim Cooper  

In the last few years industry and all levels of government European, national and local have shown increasing interest in recycling, whereas little attention has been paid to the life span of products. Thus manufacturers proudly pronounce that their products are 'recycled' or 'recyclable', but most are hesitant about stating how long they are likely to function. Likewise, the Government has introduced a national recycling target for domestic waste, but has yet to take practical steps to encourage the manufacture and sale of longer lasting products.


Many products with a high metal content, including vehicles and kitchen appliances such as washing machines and cookers, have traditionally been recycled. The suggestion that manufacturers are now making them with an unprecedented capacity for recycling therefore represents something of a myth. Indeed, far from there being any improvement in the recyclability of cars, for example, they are currently less recyclable than in the past because of a growing plastics content. this has increased to roughly 12%, compared with 2% in the early 1960s. Fears have even been expressed recently that it has become less economic to recycle cars because around 25% of each car (the plastic, plus rubber, foam, textiles and fluids) cannot now be recycled (Ogilvie, 1992, pp.50-1; Williams, 1991, 9.4).

According to a report from the Warren Spring Laboratory, formerly the Government's environmental technology centre, around 75% of 'white goods' (i.e. kitchen appliances) are fragmentised in shredders to recover metals for recycling (Poll, 1993). In the 'brown goods' sector (i.e. audio-visual equipment and telecommunications equipment) only telephones have been extensively recycled. Most brown telephones have been extensively recycled. Most brown goods end up as landfill, as do most non-electrical consumer durables. Now that the manufacturers of vehicles and brown goods are faced with the prospect of 'take-back' legislation, however, which would make them responsible for their products after being discarded by consumers, many are exploring ways to increase the recyclability of products, such as using designs which make them easier to disassemble so that materials can be separated for recycling.

Fear of 'take back' regulations has prompted the formation of two trade bodies which aim to create effective voluntary schemes in the hope of staving-off stricter legislation. The Automotive Consortium on Recycling and Disposal (ACORD) was set up in 1992 to improve vehicle recovery and aims to increase the average percentage of materials recycled in scrap cars from the present 77% to 82% by 2015. Virtually all major car manufacturers in Europe have taken initiatives such as setting up vehicle disassembly plants where products can be dismantled and the separated parts either reused (perhaps after reconditioning), recycled, incinerated or landfilled. BMW, for example, has established a plant in Sussex and plans further plants sufficient to handle all BMWs scrapped in Britain. In the electronics sector the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER) has been set up to develop a national waste strategy for electronic goods. companies such as IBM, DEC, Hewlett Packard, Rank Xerox and Grundig are already taking back used equipment, while Toshiba and Hitachi have research programmes to reduce dis-assembly times (Bashford, 1993; Clegg and Williams, n/d).


In contrast to the increasing commitment of manufacturers to recycling, for most types of consumer durable there has been no significant or sustained trend towards the development of products that last longer. Although no comprehensive historical data on product life span is available, the general trend appears to have been in a downward direction. Independent studies suggest that modern cookers, vacuum cleaners, kettles and irons are less durable than in the past. The influences upon product life are discussed later, but one important factor is that technological advances have made it possible to replace metal with plastic and to reduce the precious metals content in electronic equipment. Costs have been reduced but quality has often suffered. Such changes have sometimes been forced upon manufacturers by competitive pressures.

For a few products, however, there has been an upward trend in life span. Televisions, for example, appear more reliable than in the past due to improved tube technology, while corrosion prevention measure are likely to result in cars that will last longer.

For some products customers have a reasonable degree of choice, with durability greater at the top end of the market. However, most volume manufacturers have given little attention to the possibility of increasing their products' life spans and tend to focus their marketing on price, cosmetic appearance and additional functions (some of which are rarely used). Moreover, the boundary between durable goods and disposable goods is becoming blurred. Items such as biros and razors have for many years been manufactured for a 'single use', but the area of overlap between durables and disposables has expanded through the development of single use cameras and the promotion of fashionably-designed spectacles, telephones and watches.

Apart from fear of legislation, why is industry choosing a strategy based on recycling rather increased life spans? In an article in The Ecologist, Simon Fairlie offered a provocative explanation: "Recycling offers business an environmental excuse for instant obsolescence" (Fairlie, 1992, p.280). Recycling, he argued, can be seen as part of a calculated strategy by industry to sustain sales in a world where markets for many consumer durables are reaching saturation. Though clearly controversial, his claim merits further investigation.

The Public Sector

Public sector bodies have, like manufacturers, shown more interest in recycling than durability. The most substantive piece of research on product life, an OECD report entitled Product Durability and Product-Life Extension, contained several recommendations for governments, but these were not taken up in Britain or most other member countries (OECD, 1982). Even the European Union's Ecolabelling Scheme, which is intended to promote products with a low environmental impact, does not include durability among the eco-label criteria. Inclusion was explicitly rejected when the terms for assessing washing machines were drawn up, although this decision is due to be reconsidered in any future review of the criteria (UK Ecolabelling Board, 1992, pp.44, 53). A significant exception to the general lack of interest is the British Standards Institution's Guide to durability of buildings and building components (BS7543), which contains some useful definitions and recommendations, but this is not generally concerned with movable consumer durable items.

Independent studies suggest that modern cookers, vacuum cleaners, kettles and irons are less durable than in the past. It is only very recently, in its major environmental policy document Sustainable Development: the UK Strategy, that the Government appears to have started to pay closer attention tot he benefits of longer lasting products (H.M. Government, 1994). This important breakthrough is considered later. By contrast, prompted by an amended EU Directive on waste which stipulated that member states must encourage recycling, the Government has set a target level for household waste recycling, published a Waste Management Paper specifically on recycling, provided various forms of financial assistance for recycling (including grants to industry and voluntary organisations), initiated a system of 'recycling credits', and entered discussions with key industrial sectors on increasing recycling and recovery (Department of the Environment, 1991: H.M. Government, 1994).

In seeking to explain such priorities, the political expedience of recycling is perhaps significant. As the OECD report noted, recycling has an early effect on the waste stream and recycling volumes are readily quantified (OECD, 1982), pp.62-3). Any new recycling initiative has an identifiable impact within a normal electoral cycle. It is also a visible, photogenic activity which politicians can personally participate in. By comparison, the benefits of durability are far less transparent to the general public and take effect more gradually.

At the local authority level, household waste strategies have mainly focussed on newspapers and disposable packaging rather that consumer durables. They are very frequently based on the 'dustbin' alone and not total household waste. Significantly, many recycling officers are employed by district councils rather than the county councils which oversee civic amenity sites (where the bulkier consumer durables end up).
  Awareness is increasing, however, of the need for local authorities to pay attention to the destiny of consumer durables as well packaging, and to promote reuse as well as recycling. Different solutions are required according to what has been discarded: compared with packaging, consumer durables ten to have a complex construction and more materials, are bulky, and sometimes have component parts which contain hazardous substances.

Finally, the priorities of businesses and the public sector may partly be explained by the fact that surprisingly little attention has been paid to durability by environmental or consumer organisations, despite much rhetoric about our 'throwaway society". Their focus has instead been on recycling. Consequently there has been little pressure on decision makers to move towards the longer life option.
  Tim Cooper is a researcher for the New Economics Foundation. A former economic and environmental consultant, he began his career as an economic analyst in the construction industry. An influential figure in green politics and former parliamentary candidate, he was co-founder of Christian Ecology Link and is the author of Green Christianity (Hodder and Stoughton, 1990).

This article is the second in a series. It is taken from a report Beyond Recycling, The longer life option. The report has been written as part of the New Economics Foundation's ongoing research work into Energy and Materials Conservation. It is published by the New Economics Foundation, 1st Floor, Vine Court, 112-116 Whitechapel Road, London, E1 1JE.
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