Product Ecology: Obsolescence & e-Waste

Lecture Week 2 4/8/16 by Dr. Miles Park (UNSW)

Let’s consider why household products go to waste.

Ephemerial products – the durability and rate at which we change our products is critical to environmental impact.

Planned obselescence: light bult lifespan was 2,500 hours in 1924, down to 1,000 hours by 1940. This is engineering to fail, and not just increasing the sales fo rthese companies, but also unnecesarily increasing waste.

Typology of obsolesence:

  • Mind, Matter & Money
  • Absolute (functional failure)
  • Relative (perceived, economic and technical factors)

Absolute failures occur where a product no longer functions, whereas a relative failure is where it is perceived to be a failure; perhaps it is now “ugly”.

We therefore must consider the effects of:

  • product upgrade
  • cost of repair
  • non-repair or void warranty

Deinflationary pressures show how affordability of products have changed over tie, and are often measured as “days to earn” i.e. relative to income.

We then look at the price of consumable i.e. a printer may only be $57, but ink cartriges are costong $68 each. This suggests it is “cheaper” to but 3 printers, and to throw them out when they run out of ink. This obviously involves a huge amount of waste.


Waste attributed to electronic products.

1 tonne of discraded mobile phones (without batteries) can yield 300g of gold – this is a greater amount than in the most efficient gold mine. This is obviously a huge amout of waste, and shows how this can impact upn the evniornment as mobile phones also contain silver, aluminium, copper etc, some of which are rare Earth metals. If this doesn’t bother you yet, consider that as these metals are discarded and not reused, future phones will become more expensive due to the rarity of materials.

E-waste is also the fasted growing waste stream which 4,000 tonnes produced globally PER HOUR.

Now seriously, PLEASE WATCH THIS (It’s only 4 minutes long):


The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) is the European Community directive 2012/19/EU on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) which, together with the RoHS Directive 2002/95/EC, became European Law in February 2003.

The move is for “end of life” reponsibility – where companys who manufacture goods are not purely required to have repsonsibility for goods during their manufacture, use etc. but also for their afterlife i.e. for the recycling and appropriate discard of the products so that this occurs safely and efficiently.

Provisions are also to be made for “orphan” goods, that are from older companies that no longer exists, or in the case where a manufacturer can’t be found.

How do we design for end of life?

  • easy dissasembly
  • emotional durability (design products that we want to keep)
  • patina (how products ware)
  • personalisation

The video below is only 4 minutes long as well 🙂 It explains end of life considerations for products, and inroduces the concept of a “closed loop” design and manufacture system

This next one is less than a minute and shows “Ara”, a modular phone developed by Google, that is designed to stand the test of time by being easily replaceable and upgradeable.


Therefore, is sustainability all about ethics??


Further References


Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 7.34.58 PM


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