The Commission to the European Parliament has recently presented the new Action Plan for the Circular Economy, for a cleaner and more competitive Europe, part of the European Green Pact.
This plan defines a framework for a sustainable products policy and addresses the key value chains of items such as electronic devices, batteries and vehicles, textiles, etc. Its objective is to generate less waste and increase the value and usability of those.
A very interesting aspect of the plan is consumer empowerment. Customers have become aware of the value of their ideas and opinions to make their favorite brands maintain a high level of quality and respect the environment.
Knowing that 80% of the environmental impact of a product is determined in the design phase, the problem for the consumer is that it is found with single-use articles or with a too short useful life. Therefore, it does not have the capacity to act.
It is necessary to empower consumers so that manufacturers design products that generate less waste and guarantee the benefits of the good over time, basic issues to achieve a clearly carbon neutral, energy efficient and circular economy.
Definitions of shelf life
First, it should be clarified that there are different definitions:
- Total useful life. It is the total time that a product is in the primary or second-hand market. For example, the case of a vehicle that an owner uses for 6 years is sold in the second-hand market and the new owner uses it for another 6 years until it cannot circulate for legal purposes (total useful life = 12 years). . After that period, the vehicle goes to the junkyard.
- Useful life for domestic use. It is the total time that a product is used without losing its general functionality. This is the case of a refrigerator that works for 10 years, even if the interior light does not work or the door handle is broken or there is any other fault that does not prevent its operation, but it has no outlet on the secondary market. After that period, the product is sent for recycling.
- Possession period. It is the time that a product is in the hands of its owner and that varies depending on subjective decisions. For example, someone wants to change vehicles every three years, regardless of their condition or their total useful life.
- Duration of use. It is the time that the product remains with the owner until it stops working due to failure or early obsolescence or not. It is a value that does not depend on the consumer.
How is the shelf life of a product evaluated?
It is difficult to estimate the useful life of a product accurately. In addition, it is a value that refers to the past (it is calculated to) and the product in question may have finished its useful life by then.
The calculation can only be done impartially using a mass balance that can be applied in three different ways as shown in the following table:
These survey-based methodologies are expensive and represent a major obstacle to collecting actual product shelf life data.
Material flow analysis and life cycle assessment often assume product shelf life, both static (in a country or region) and temporary, depending on the results of specific studies. But a wrong assumption can cause great inaccuracy in the results.
Can we escape planned obsolescence?
It will be necessary to estimate more precise data on European regional differences, including at national level, and temporal variations in the real useful life of the product in order to control the process.
The plan addresses product durability, reuse, upgrade, and serviceability, as well as limiting single-use products and controlling planned obsolescence.
How to empower consumers?
To give more prominence to customers and facilitate their choice, the European Community raises the need to:
- Providing reliable product information at the point of sale regarding its useful life, repair services, spare parts and repair manuals.
- Protect consumers from ecological bleaching () and premature obsolescence.
- Establish minimum requirements for sustainability labels or logos and information tools.
- Guarantee the right to reparation. It is nothing more than enabling the provision of spare parts, repair services and, in the case of electronics and communications, updating services.
- In the case of textiles, offer options to acquire sustainable clothing, access to reuse and repair.
The important thing is to know now how these competences will be addressed and at what cost they can be implemented in an economy in transition (and now, affected by the COVID-19 crisis), with large gaps in social insecurity, in SMEs and in the self-employed. One thing is the theory and the agenda proposed in the plan and another is practice, which raises doubts if we take into account the historical data.
Perhaps part of the solution is towards citizen participation in companies (not expressly contemplated in the plan). Empowered consumers are seen by many manufacturers as their greatest source of information to optimize the experience they offer. Others take this participation to a more advanced level and integrate them into decision-making, as another member of the team, and ask them directly about their wishes.
José Vicente López, Researcher in the Department of Forest and Environmental Management and Engineering,
This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.