Extending The Life Of Products

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The key aim of product-life extension activities is to extend the period of time over which products fulfil useful functions in the industrial economy. In brief, we aim to get as much use as possible out of materials before we throw them away into the environment. This will not only reduce the burden of post-consumer waste. It will also reduce the demand for new material products, and reduce the environmental burdens associated with producing them.

The key elements of extending the utilisation period (see Figure 18) are the following:8

1 reuse of products either for the same purpose or for another purpose;

2 repairing and maintaining products to keep them useful for as long as possible;

3 reconditioning or remanufacturing products to restore or upgrade them;

4 recycling of raw materials from products to provide material inputs to the manufacture of other goods.

It is important to remember that each of the four material loops illustrated in Figure 18 involves new processes of material transformation, each of them subject to the laws of thermodynamics. Consequently, each of them is likely to require energy—and perhaps also material—inputs. These new inputs will involve new waste emissions into the

Manufacturing

Virgin resources

Basic materia production

Manufacturing

Basic materia production

Waste

Loop 3: Re-conditioning/rebuilding of goods Loop 4: Recycling of raw materials

Waste

Loop 1: Re-use of goods Loop 2: Repairs of goods

Loop 3: Re-conditioning/rebuilding of goods Loop 4: Recycling of raw materials

Figure 18 Product-life extension strategies environment. In many cases, these new waste emissions will usually be very much less than the waste emissions which would have been created by making brand new products and just throwing the old ones away. Once again, however, we need to make a careful examination of the whole system before we can decide whether a particular strategy for reusing a material or a product is less or more environmentally damaging than making a new product or using new materials.

What is generally found is that there is an approximate 'hierarchy' amongst these different strategies, based on the relative amounts of energy and materials that are needed to carry them through. The strategy of reuse is at the top of this hierarchy because it generally requires least additional energy and material input. Usually this additional energy and material input is required for collection and redistribution of the reusable products. Where there is a well-established local network for collection and redistribution, the additional energy demands tend to be minimal.

Repair and maintenance activities usually require a greater input of energy and materials than reusing products directly. The success of the repair and maintenance loop really depends on an appropriate infrastructure to provide both parts and labour for maintenance work.

Reconditioning generally requires somewhat higher inputs of energy and materials, and may involve the setting up of centralised facilities for remanufacturing. Products are dismantled or stripped to separate worn out materials from those which are still useful. The useful parts are then reconstructed using new materials where necessary to make new products. This process offers the possibility of technological upgrading to improve product performance as well as lengthening product life.

During the recycling loop material products have to be collected and reprocessed to separate out raw material components. These raw materials can then be used as inputs to the manufacture of new products. The energy of collection, separation, treatment and redistribution can make the recycling loop the least efficient of the loops from a materials perspective. Nevertheless, the energy and materials required for recycling may often be less than those required to extract and process primary raw materials.

The overall effect of these strategies is to introduce a kind of cascade of use for material products.9 New products made from virgin materials enter the system at the 'top' of the cascade. For a while these products may be reused directly with minimal additional inputs of material and energy. But at a certain point, they will require more substantial repair and maintenance. Following this repair process, products may re-enter the system at a lower point in the cascade— perhaps corresponding to a lower economic value.10 Later the same products may require full-scale reconditioning which returns them to a new state of usefulness—perhaps even their original state. Eventually, however, material products move down the cascade. Towards the bottom of the cascade the only value in the products lies in their component materials. These materials must then be recovered and recycled as inputs to another cascade of use.11

By supplying services at each of a variety of different levels, this cascade maximises the use value derived from each material input. The quantity of virgin materials entering the system is consequently reduced. So are the environmental emissions. But the same level of service is maintained (Figure 19).

The picture painted in Figure 19 is clearly analogous to the one illustrated in Figure 15. Reduced material inputs are required to produce the same output. In a sense, therefore, this strategy once again corresponds to an improvement in material efficiency. This time we are talking about the efficiency with which materials are used to supply particular services rather than products, but the basic idea is the same. Instead of talking about material efficiency, we could equally talk about reducing the material intensity of providing a particular service.

Figure 19 Providing services: improved material efficiency

Improved material efficiencies then correspond to reducing the material intensity per unit of service.12

Much of the success of these strategies depends on the existence of an appropriate infrastructure within the industrial economy. For example, we need decentralised collection and distribution networks to reduce the transportation needs of reuse and recycling. Under these conditions product-life extension becomes considerably more attractive, leading to reduced environmental burdens and lower economic costs.

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