Wear-out products, prosperity and environmental degradation

Talk as broadcast by the Science Unit of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the Ockham’s Razor series on ABC Radio National on 9th December 1995 (1835 words).


Twenty years ago, in May 1975, John Coombs and I wrote an article in The Australian newspaper about wear-out and throw-away products. We discussed their negative effects and offered some remedies. I suggest that today, this is an idea whose time has come.

Amid global concern about environmental pollution and degradation, this is a neglected area where we could increase our prosperity, and at the same time reduce waste, pollution, consumption of energy, and a number of economic problems, including foreign debt. To some extent we could have our cake and eat it too.

Over the years, when I have found myself having to fix or replace something, – costing money that I would rather have spent on something else, – I’ve remembered a book called “The Waste Makers”, by Vance Packard. He said, then, – (it was a long time ago) – that it would only cost an American car maker another five cents to put a durable, long-life, muffler on a new car instead of the standard one which soon rusted out. The principle stuck in my mind – and perhaps it will stay in yours.

My memory of it gets renewed when bits of my car, like batteries, tyres, radiators, and exhaust systems perish at an early age; or parts with sealed bearings, like alternators, blow up for want of a bit of grease.

While it can be fun buying new things, I like to be free to choose. I don’t think most people get a kick out of replacing parts of their motor cars or other gadgets.

So, being an environmentalist who likes things well-engineered, when something needed repairing I would ask the serviceman – (and they were all men) – whether the item involved was well-designed for a long life.

I was told that many washing machines were hardly worth repairing after five years, and that high pressure hot water cylinders were carefully designed to need replacing after a limited period.

In the 1970s, behind a large Sydney hospital, I found a huge pile of old air-conditioners. The engineer told me that after five years they weren’t worth repairing. I was appalled.

Then I saw a technical book, showing how vast amounts of electricity could be saved if heat pumps, in the form of reverse-cycle air-conditioners, were used for heating instead of electric radiators. Generating electricity from fossil fuels is a major source of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. But if the air-conditioners have to be replaced every five years, it involves extra cost and pollution, and spoils any gains in this proposal.

I realised that the American company General Motors, which had pioneered planned obsolescence in motor cars, also made air conditioners and refrigerators. 

Refrigerators were once built to last, but I was told that some refrigerators could have a short life. When corrosion occurred in pipes embedded deep in the structure, the fridge was not worth repairing. This happened because the pipes were made of a cheap aluminium alloy instead of copper. When I had a fridge with this fatal problem, I rang the Australian manufacturer, and I was told that it would cost too much to make these pipes from copper, although it would have a much longer life. I find this odd, because I can still buy scrap copper pipes for about three dollars a kilogram. Replacing refrigerators has quite an environmental impact, and if most homes in China and India get short-life fridges, the impact will be massive.

As alarm grew about destruction of the ozone layer, due to escape of CFC gases from refrigerators, I wondered how much of this damage might never have occurred, if refrigerators and air-conditioners had been engineered to last, so that the gases did not escape.

In recent years there have been improvements, but in general, the design life of many products seems to be adjusted to be the shortest that the market will stand without stimulating buyer resistance. We are not encouraged to look far ahead, and the market does not care about the biosphere.

By “Wear out ” or “throw away” products I mean manufactured goods with a relatively short life, due to planned obsolescence, wear-out or throw-away design, poor workmanship, or unavailabilty of spare parts.

There isn’t time to look at many examples of throw-away products, but you can make your own list. They range from packaging and ball-point pens – to disposable nappies and hospital equipment.

What are the negative effects of wear-out products on the economy, the consumer and the environment?

As far as the economy is concerned, Wear-out products are sometimes defended by saying that they create employment. We hear a lot about increased productivity, but, so far as national wealth is concerned, increased productivity is meaningless unless the product is durable. Wear-out products erode the value of higher productivity.

How many of the shiploads of goods, which clog roads in huge trucks, will be cluttering our garbage tips within ten years, or much less?

Like many countries, Australia has gone far into debt to buy imported goods, and to pay for them we live off our capital, selling many irreplaceable assets, such as industries, forests and, effectively, our precious topsoil.

Sometimes economists talk as if the faster things fall apart the better. If all our manufactured goods failed twice as quickly, this would, other things being equal, increase business turn-over, employment, wages, government taxes, and the “Gross Domestic Product”. The usual figures would indicate great “growth” in the economy. But many forms of waste, even road accidents, crime and warfare, can push up the Gross Domestic Product. While some people profit, for us as a nation the prosperity would be illusory, unless all these wear-out products were exported for some one else to worry about.

The consumers who bought them would have to run harder – just to stay in the same place. The world has gone further down this path to absurdity than is generally realized. 

Tax depreciation allowances seem adjusted to encourage the throw-away mentality.

For the consumer it is a different story.

Firstly, wear-out products make unnecessary work, and then waste it, tending to cancel out the value of the labour which has paid for them. We have seen how this means that the consumer has to run faster to stay in the same place – the rat-race. You wouldn’t build your own house, intending it to fall apart quickly, just to create employment. Yet many people accept the idea of wear-out products because they create work, – as if work were an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

Secondly, they reduce your choices about how you spend your money. If you have to spend money replacing necessities, you have less left for luxuries or other things you would prefer to buy. Also, they reduce the trade-in value of goods. Your car, or anything else, has better value as a trade-in if it was quality-built for a long life.

Thirdly, wear-out products can be inflationary. If you have to pay for two washing machines to do the work that used to be done by one, this increases the cost, and is therefore inflationary.

So, fourthly, wear-out products undermine the standard of living, particularly for older people and those on lower incomes or struggling to raise a family. Durability is essential for any hedge against inflation.

For the environment, the world-wide impacts of wear-out and throw-away products are entirely negative.

In a nutshell, they speed up the conversion of resources into garbage and other pollution. While the planet is crying out for us to slow the process down, wear-out and throw-away products actually speed up the ways that we turn valuable resources into garbage. If we follow the steps by which this occurs, we see that they waste raw materials and energy; they waste labour, equipment, and capital; they waste transport and servicing facilities; and finally, they waste facilities for garbage recycling and disposal. At each step they create waste and pollution. Whenever electricity, or any other energy, derived from fossil fuels is used, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is one of the by-products.

In an era when global pollution, greenhouse gases and environmental degradation are threatening reduced standards of living, and the health of the planet, it is remarkable that environmental organisations and the powers-that-be have largely ignored the ways we could, to some extent, both have our cake and eat it too.

You may have heard the slogan “Reuse, recycle and reduce”.

We hear a lot about “re-use” and “recycle”, but not much about “reduce” and how to do it. Yet, there are many ways in which we, and the other powers that be, between us could do something about wear-out products.

We can

– decide now to reduce this form of waste, and ask the best engineers to help us do it;

 -we can develop standards of design for long life, as an aspect of quality;

– we can announce national policies of purchasing durable, long-life goods, and avoiding throw-away products;

– we can encourage our industries to gain reputations for durability as an element in quality manufacturing;

– we can amend tax depreciation schedules accordingly;

– we can require spare parts to be available for the long life of the product;

– we can educate our children to appreciate the science and principles involved,

and consumer reports could examine design for durability.

We can discourage single-use, so-called disposable items. Hospitals, which now throw out mountains of equipment after a single use, can change to re-useable equipment, and, at the same time, make good savings in cash, worker satisfaction and environmental impact. [Full details were given on Radio National’s environment program and can be got from “Nursing the Environment”, care of The Australian Nursing Federation, phone (03) 482 2722.]

To the extent that necessary work is reduced, it could be shared through work-sharing and part-time work arrangements.

Countries which have built a reputation for making things that last, such as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland and in some respects Japan, have prospered with high standards of living. Unfortunately for us this has raised the value of their currencies, making their goods expensive for us, but it benefits their own citizens, and such policies could benefit ours.

In 1975 we quoted an advertisement by Hitachi, saying, “Do everything possible to make everything with longer lasting value”. Hitachi is now the world’s sixth largest corporation, producing an extraordinary range of products. I would like to see more companies advertising such a policy of value through durability. A similar slogan, promoted by Rotary, was “Do it once and do it right”. It can pay high dividends.

Some years ago the French Government announced a war on wear-out products. It can be done.

So I conclude with a plea, to those who set the public agenda. Please recognise that our beautiful biosphere can no longer sustain the waste and pollution of wear-out and throw-away products. The price we have already paid is very high.