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Lifetimes of household appliances becoming shorter

Lifetimes of household appliances becoming shorter
A new study commissioned by the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt – UBA) has revealed that the lifespans of electrical and electronic appliances are becoming shorter, with the amount of appliances replaced within five years due to defects increasing from 3.5 per cent in 2004 to 8.3 per cent in 2013.

The report, ‘Influence of the useful life of products on their environmental impact: Creation of an information database and development of strategies against obsolescence’, was produced by the Oko-Institut e.V. and Bonn University. The UBA says the detailed study into product obsolescence, was a response to the ‘imminent need’ for scientific research into this subject.

The report includes investigations of consumer behaviour, replacement patterns and causes of defects across four product groups: large household appliances; small household appliances; information and communication technology and consumer electronics.

Obsolescence

The study found that rapid product innovative for high-tech products, in conjunction with their relatively short lifespans, is creating a large impact on the environment by increasing the volume of electrical and electronic waste produced.

This is in part due to obsolescence, of which there are several types. Planned obsolescence is the deliberate shortening of a products usage time by the manufacturer in order to encourage consumers to buy new products. Meanwhile, psychological obsolescence occurs when consumers reject an older product for a new one due to the novelty factor or new innovations, and economic obsolescence occurs due to the lack of reparability of a product, including a lack of repair service or parts.

Study findings

In a survey performed as part of the study, 75 per cent of consumers stated that the desire for a better device was integral to their decision to buy a new product, including products such as household appliances.

Research revealed that the amount of household appliances replaced within five years due to defects increased from 3.5 per cent in 2004 to 8.3 per cent in 2013. Approximately one third of consumers were reportedly dissatisfied with the lifetime of their products, as they would prefer their products to last for longer.

There was no evidence found to support planned obsolescence by manufacturers, but it was noted that for certain products a particular lifetime was ‘factored in’ according to target groups, product cycles or applications.

The report provides TV sets as an example of this, as consumers apparently expect new products within one year, according to the report. It notes that product quality may suffer as a result of this quick innovation cycle time resulting in poorer testing of appliances, lasting perhaps weeks rather than months.

The report concludes that to increase product lifetime, appliances must be readily repairable. This means the implementation of designs allowing easy repair and making spare parts available to non-proprietary shops.

It warns that consumers must also change their behaviour, as devices such as smartphones, notebooks and flatscreen TVs are now commonly discarded prior to the end of their lifetimes.

The report also comments on the potential ‘pioneering role’ the public sector could play in extending product lifespans, by prescribing a minimum service life for appliances. This in addition to increasing the use of donating, sharing, exchanging, borrowing or lending platforms could enhance product lifespans.

The UBA also contends that the introduction of legislation would also help, as in France, where the Energy Transition Bill, which was passed by the National Assembly in July 2015, contains measures against obsolescence. The addition of regulations to counter planned obsolescence are thought to be planned for the future.

Product lifespans ‘ecologically unacceptable’

Commenting on the study, UBA President Maria Krautzberger said: “Many appliances have much too short a lifespan. This is ecologically unacceptable. The manufacture of products consumes precious resources, and pollutants and greenhouse gases are a strain on the environment and climate.

“It is time to think about minimum requirements of product lifetime and quality – a sort of minimum period of durability for electronic and electrical appliances. Many appliances are being replaced although they are still in good working order. It is also important that consumers use their appliances for a longer time.

“The lack of transparency is a problem for consumers. One cannot tell by looking at a product how long it was designed to last. Price is also not always a reliable indicator either. For the sake of consumers and the environment, a system of labelling which expresses the typical life expectancy of an appliance in hours of use would be beneficial.”

More information on the study can be found on UBA’s website.