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A Little Green Around The Edges

Durable Product Laws: Who Should The Real Target Be?

The first and preferred step in the five step waste management hierarchy is waste reduction. Several recent international legislative developments focus on making products more durable so they do not get tossed in the trash can or the recycling bin quite so soon. But will such legislative instruments, if adopted, prove effective?

Here are a few examples of proposed legislation. The French Senate has taken up a bill that would require a minimum five-year warranty be provided for most products and repair/replacement parts be made available at least 10 years after a product ceases to be manufactured. As an incentive to manufacturers, a decrease in mandated eco-contributions (stewardship fees) of more durable products is included in the bill.

In Germany, ten members of the Bundestag introduced a resolution that calls for drafting a bill similar to the one in the France Senate. The resolution includes establishing minimum life expectancies for most products. The burden of proof to demonstrate products meet their targeted life expectancy would fall on manufacturers.

In Brazil's Camara dos Deputados, a recently introduced bill would require manufacturers to place life expectancy information on a product or its packaging or be in violation of Brazilian consumer protection law.

The three proposed legislative instruments take the perspective that manufacturers have the knowledge and capabilities to build more repairable and longer lasting products. The Bundestag resolution goes so far as to cite Apple's iPad as an example of a non-durable product. Language in the resolution states, "It is not acceptable for devices such as Apple iPads to be discarded after three years because the batteries are soldered and can not be replaced without a cost-intensive effort."

But is the rationale behind such proposed legislative instruments naive? Set aside whether manufacturers have any financial incentive to produce and sell fewer products and consider consumer motivation. While it seems logical that consumer would buy longer-lasting products to save money in the long term, consumer behavior often is not driven by logic. Manufacturing a cell phone that lasts six years and is easy to repair is a bit pointless if the consumer uses the phone for only a year, then replaces it once the elan and coolness associated with the product wear off.

Most consumers want the newest, the trendiest, if they can afford it. Desire and emotion often play a greater role in purchasing decisions than logic. Arguably, that's what makes Apple products, often more expensive than those of competing brands, so popular. (I know many Apple product lovers will point out the perceived technical superiority of Apple products.)

So, will most consumers that tend to eat at trendy restaurants and buy trendy new cars, electronics, home furnishings, and clothing be persuaded to buy used clothes, appliances and home furnishings at second hand stores, or repair aging old products and embrace "old tech" to help save the planet?

The sales success of "pre-owned" (used) prestigious automobiles suggests an opportunity exists for green-minded legislators. But perhaps they need to integrate imaginative methods to change consumer behavior into sustainable consumption and production policies that focus on manufacturers. Otherwise, the equation is incomplete.

For the moment, let's see what the French Senate approves, if anything, in this novel line of environmental legislation. It may be a first step in what will likely be a long and circuitous journey to a marketplace of more sustainable products.

Raymond Communications, Inc.
P.O. Box 4311, Silver Spring, MD 20914-4311
Telephone: 301.879.0628