Environmentally Sensible Purchasing leads to Environmentally Sane Manufacturing

This week I went to a local meeting of the PMA (Precision Metalforming Association), a professional association of which we are members.

In the course of open discussion, we happened upon the issue of disposable manufacturing. This is (my name for) the practice of making manufacturing design decisions based on the assumption that flimsy goods are what the consumer wants. This in turn is based on the assumption, all too true in recent history, that when something breaks, no one will attempt to fix it but rather just throw it away and get another one (the so-called “disposable society”).

While I believe there is a place for disposable goods (surgical needles that may have been contaminated by HIV, etc), I think in most cases, the move to disposable goods is made without consideration of the true cost.

When you go to Home Depot or Canadian Tire or wherever and buy a $3 no-name no warranty tape measure, the assumption is it will last a year or so and when it breaks you will throw it out and buy another. After all, you can buy 8 such tape measures for the cost of one good $25 Lufkin or Stanley model.

But …

From an environmental point of view, the $25 Lufkin can be repaired. If the tape ever breaks, you can get another from the manufacturer (I assume Stanley has a similar program, although I’ve never actually checked). The $3 no name cannot. So you’ll just throw it out. Remember the environmental “R”s? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? (they should have added Repair in there somewhere). In any case, those 8 tape measures you’ll buy and throw away will take up 8 times the space in the landfill. The plastic housings never break down and while you can crush the plastic housing, you can’t with the tape inside. The tape inside will eventually rust and turn to powder, but it’ll take a long time inside that weather-resistant plastic housing.

So, the environmental impact of buying the $3 last a year tape measure is far higher than the environmental impact of buying the $25 last a lifetime one.

Why is this a precision metal stamping issue? Because the $25 tape measure has enough money in it that precision parts are used in it. The tape itself is made out of high quality steel, the markings are screened on accurately, the end hook and the belt clip are good quality, as is the housing.

The $3 tape measure is made of lousy components. No one checks if it even measures accurately. And here’s the environmental issue – the disposal costs are 8-10 times higher. But …. the disposal costs are hidden. The consumer doesn’t see the disposal costs in the purchase price. The consumer doesn’t see the disposal costs broken down at all, only knows that curbside garbage pickup and other municipal services are costing more every year, but doesn’t understand that his/her own buying habits are contributing to that trend.

More importantly, the manufacturer doesn’t pay any of the disposal costs, so for them, end of life disposal issues are a non-issue.

But that is changing.

In many parts of Canada and the US, drink bottles and cans are now recycled. In Europe they’ve gone a step further – the recycling facilities for cars at end of life are fully funded by the auto manufacturers, making disposal of harmful chemicals and difficult materials their responsibility, and ultimately, one hopes, giving automotive designers an incentive to design for the entire life-cycle of the product, including disposal.

Why don’t manufacturers, and in particular manufacturing designers, design for end-of-life disposal issues? Because we, as a society, are in love with throw-away consumer goods. The designers make it someone elses problem, and you the consumer go along with it. By buying inferior products and buying into the idea that you’ll just junk it when it stops working, you and I literally buy into this disposable culture.

By it’s nature, disposable goods don’t have to be well manufactured or manufactured so they can be repaired. So everything is made out of plastic, thin or poorly made metal where it has to be metal at all, and the average good lasts a year or two before contributing more to the landfills of the world than society.

How to stop or reverse this trend?
1. Your own buying habits.
2. Legislation in your jurisdiction that makes manufacturering designers and the executives above them responsible for end-of-life disposal problems.

Some interesting resources:
Environmentally Preferable Purchasing , an initiative of the American Environmental Protection Agency.
Wikipedia page on Ethical Consumerism – doesn’t touch as much on environmental issues.
“Green” Purchasing Policy statement at Villanova University, PA
Green Purchasing search at Google

2 thoughts on “Environmentally Sensible Purchasing leads to Environmentally Sane Manufacturing”

  1. This trend toward disposable goods has impacted upon us in the past. At one time we sold good quantities of medium carbon steel to shovel manufacturers. Being produced of carbon steel meant the blades could be “hardened” which enabled them to withstand years of use.
    Some of the large “chains” started to sell shovels with blades made from cheaper mild steel which was not hardened, resulting in a shovel that cost much less and lasted a season before being replaced. A similar trend then followed with saw blades, which would cut through 3 sheets of balsa wood before losing the “cutting edge”.
    We can provide good quality materials for good quality products that will last. Whether or not the consumer will pay the price is another issue. Let’s hope that the environmental factors cause people to re-think.

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