This article began with an Xpelair extractor fan, made in England in 1972, and 46 years later removed from Marcus’s kitchen. Already installed when he moved in a decade ago, it had presumably provided continual service since soon after it was manufactured before he took interest in how something so thoroughly covered in grease could still be soldiering on.
Being an engineer by trade and a keen tinkerer by nature, Marcus took the fan apart to inspect it. Looking past the deep layers of accumulated filth, the build quality was immediately apparent, with robust metal blades and a spring mechanism that looked ready to go another 40 years.
This got him thinking about how long things last; more specifically, about the lifetimes of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and what can be done to extend them.
An avid archivist of old receipts, Marcus was also able to date with precision just when many of his oldest possessions were purchased. The list of fully functional museum pieces included:
- A cathode ray tube PC monitor bought in January 1998. Although branded ‘Gateway’, the monitor was actually manufactured by Sony at its site in Pencoed, Wales, which is where the Raspberry Pi is made today.
- A Rotel HiFi amplifier, bought mail order from a magazine in 1986.
- A Binatone Musiclock alarm clock radio, bought in 1981. It’s had a tuning dial bulb replaced and its potentiometers are a bit noisy, but otherwise it’s fine despite being powered up continuously for 37 years.
- A valve-driven Murphy Radio made in Welwyn Garden City in 1954. Despite nearly qualifying for a pension, it still works every time Marcus turns it on just to stop the electrolytic capacitors from degrading.
So, it’s certainly possible for EEE to live a long and worthwhile life. But is this the case for all EEE, and is build quality still as good as it was 20, 40, or 60 years ago?
Cheap as microchips
At the middle and top ends of the market, EEE is still being made to a high standard, and advances in electrical engineering mean that in general products are more efficient and in some cases more durable than in the past. Take monitors for example, in which cathode ray tubes have been replaced by liquid crystal display (LCD) technology that can last for up to twice as long.
However, the past couple of decades have seen the emergence of an extreme low end of the market. Tight margins driven by intense high street and online competition have led retailers to source large volumes of cheap EEE that can be sold as own brand or ‘bargain’ products. Globalisation is certainly a factor, as it has allowed cheap labour and economies of scale to cut manufacturing costs.
Whether you’re paying under £200 for a wide screen television or £10 for an iron, if the price is at the absolute bottom end you’re likely engaging in a spot of false economy. However, consumers may be less bothered about something breaking if a cheap replacement can be conveniently obtained. The result is that EEE increasingly becomes seen as disposable.
What’s more, the expectation of longevity has also been eroded through the phenomenon of planned (or built-in) obsolescence we’ve seen take hold in the digital age. An accelerating rate of technological change has gone hand-in-hand with a throw-away consumerism that counts the passing years in iPhone version numbers. If manufacturers plan to roll out a new edition of their product every few years, there’s little incentive to build products that last half a lifetime.
Expecting the worst
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has carried out research comparing how long consumers expect EEE to last with actual product life times, based on samples of waste EEE (WEEE) collected at waste sites. They found that, on average, consumers expected fridge freezers, televisions, vacuum cleaners and laptops/computers not to last as long as they actually did.
In some cases consumer estimates were especially pessimistic: the expected lifespan of a laptop/computer was just 4.9 years, while the reality was 9.6 years, and televisions and vacuum cleaners both last about twice as long as predicted. Only for washing machines did consumers expectations exceed the actual product life: 6.8 years as opposed to the reality of 6.3 years. As an aside, it’s worth noting that this is shockingly low: washing machines are a mature technology and relatively cheap and easy to fix, even by a determined amateur. A replacement set of brushes for the main motor, for example, costs around £5 on eBay.
Why are consumer expectations so low? Well, the findings indicated that ‘own-brand’ WEEE was younger than ‘name brand’ WEEE (which they call ‘original equipment manufacturer’ or ‘OEM’. This seems to confirm that low-cost EEE breaks quicker – no surprises there. Also, while WRAP was able to reliably estimate the age of OEM equipment in around 80% of cases, for own-brand goods it was only able to do so in around 20% of cases. This suggests that consumers have had their expectations lowered regarding how long products should last, as well as about how they should age, through experiences with products at the low end of the market.
In some cases product choices will of course be determined by consumer income: people on a very tight budget may only be able to afford the cheapest products. However, across the socio-economic board EEE is increasingly no longer seen as a long-term investment. The result is a growing market for cheap EEE that breaks quickly and in turn results in growing amounts of waste.
While durability is important for preventing the waste of material resources, it’s also important to remember that in terms of carbon abatement it isn’t always the whole story: we must also consider preventing wastage of energy. Technologies can become more energy efficient as manufacturers make improvements. Consequently, products will have optimal lifetimes, after which the environmentally sound choice is to recycle and replace them with a new, better performing model.
A design for life
According to WRAP, around two million tonnes of EEE is placed on the UK market each year, while 1.53 million tonnes of WEEE was generated in 2015 alone. Much of this is currently challenging to recycle, especially digital technologies made up of many small and hard to separate parts. If we are to make EEE part of a circular economy – which involves extending product lifetimes as well as increasingly their recoverability – then we must look to designers and engineers as well as waste managers to develop new solutions.
At present, though, there is little incentive for manufactures to take this seriously, and policy makers may need to force their hand. Article 8 of the EU Waste Framework Directive states:
“Member States may take appropriate measures to encourage the design of products in order to reduce their environmental impacts and the generation of waste in the course of the production and subsequent use of product…”
This looks like it has direct application, and could be used as reasonable grounds for national legislation around build quality, at least targeting budget items or products exhibiting ‘built in obsolescence’ in the most extreme cases. The problem is that Member States aren’t obliged to take such action, and so this law has not been widely used. The situation will be little changed by the new version of the Directive that has just entered into EU law.
So, what design measures could help make EEE manufacture more circular? For a start, manufacturers could do more to empower people to maintain products (e.g. cleaning potentiometers and switches) as well as repair them (e.g. replacing internal fuses, connectors and switches). This simple product care work can be aided by simple product design principles, such using screws – which can easily be removed – on casings rather than snap fixing and glues. Also, screws should not be hidden for aesthetic reasons, but should be clearly identifiable.
Ideally, manufacturers should also provide schematics, part lists and a service manual. This used to be common in previous generations, but these days documentation is often only provided online, and then incompletely. Moreover, manufacturers are generally poor at maintaining the documentation for discontinued domestic products, although professional and industrial equipment fares much better in this regard. Of course, EEE can contain hazards such as capacitors and some complicated modern devices do require professional knowledge – consumers need to exercise care if they’re going to take maintenance into their own hands. But better design would enable products that are currently impractical to repair or maintain to live longer productive lives.
Stemming the tide of WEEE waste at source would both help save resources and take pressure off the WEEE treatment systems we also need to develop. It’s great when our treasured devices hold their place in our homes in good working order, but less great when they simply hang around the environment.