designing products to be recycled, repaired, or rebuilt?

I am a 4th year Industrial Design student from the University of Canberra Australia. For Design Honours I am writing an essay on the topic of responsible consumption and design, specifically looking at what happens at the end of usable life of a product.

My question is:

When designing a product for responsible consumption and disposal which of the following concepts would be more beneficial for the designer/s to consider and pursue:

Recycling: designing a product to utilise as many recyclable materials as possible, considering the ease of disassembly, use of single materials in one mould, limiting painted surfaces, etc.

Repairing: designing a product to be easily repaired if parts fail, or break.

Rebuilding: designing a product with expansion and modification in mind, allowing a user to upgrade and change the product, effectively extending its usable lifespan.

The most beneficial concept would be of extending the life cycle. Recycling, repairing and upgrading all have waste involved, whereas reuse costs nothing in terms of money, material or energy. Of course…it is also the most difficult to design for!

Of the other three I would argue that it really depends on the product. An automobile is a complex combination of various technologies. It costs a fair bit of money when new. So for that product repair works out quite well because even an expensive repair ends up costing only 1/10 of the vehicle cost or so. However, a cel phone is completely different. The cheapest form of manufacturing for an electronic device integrates materials in a way that make it very difficult to repair, rebuild or recycle. So in that instance probably recycling makes the most sense since it doesn’t require as much precision (materials can be heated or crushed together an then mechanically or chemically seperated).

Good luck with your project and keep us posted here about what you discover.

Thankyou for your reply, some good examples.

I guess one thing that is available for the mobile phone example which I would probably put under the rebuild example, (which I guess is a term I have used to try and include the concepts of re-manufacture and simple modification for re-use) is the simple changing of covers, some people are happy to replace covers and that allows them to feel that the phone is sufficiently different than everyone elses, and so they can hold onto it just a little bit longer than they may have. But of course you cannot add features, perhaps with these new phones with installable software?!

As for the car, the cheapest bet to keep it on the road is repairing, but what if you just don’t like the look of it anymore, then there is the option of replacing or rebuilding (modifying - but that seems to be a hobby that is left to the enthusiasts out there.)

Thankyou once again

Try looking at your problem like this:

Ask people what product that they currently own, and that they have owned for some time, has provided them with the most satisfaction and find out why.

I did a research project once, somewhat along the same lines as what you propose, only I sought to define what made a good product. I found over the course of my study that existing economic structures drastically alter such a definition as the end user is only one part of the problem. Put another way, the goal of a product is to make money. You have to focus on how increased longevity and recyclability or adaptability can advance the goals of the manufacturing organization and supply chain. If you cannot demonstrate that, your study will have little relevance to the daily act of product design. Remember, most companies are not an Apple or IBM or Nike. Most companies occupy a middle ground where risk is taken more conservatively, and these non-name brand and/or non-innovation centered groups are who your study needs to examine. How can what you propose be made economically viable to them?

I know it isn’t what you asked for, but I think it is an extremely important viewpoint to consider.

Thankyou I apprieciate your response.

It is unfortunate but also very true that the people who will influence the implimentation of any of these design stratergies will be the manufacturers.

what possible advantages could there be for manufacturers who employ any of these 3 ideas?

Recycling: in some countries there are laws about the disposal of waste, therefore recycling is beneficial if not necessary for companies. (Germany for one has pollicies in place that require companies to collect and dispose of their products once they are discarded.)

Repairing, does require a large infrastructure of repairers, and spare parts, but does meen that the owner will continue to ‘use’ products from that manufacturer, rather than buying elsewhere. Perhaps building up a brand loyalty!?

Rebuilding, in terms of remanufacture, allows the manufacturer to keep the customer, and make more money off the rebuild than they would off simple repairing!? In the case of modifying, parts would be built by the manufacturer, or other companies, these would help to increase the profile of the product (for example cars - modified cars create followings - just look at the japanese import scene!)

Anyway they are some examples that I can think of, but I am interested to hear what you can come up with.

I also have one other question I would like to ask:

Is recycling really as great as ‘everyone’ is saying it is? or is it just an easy way to push the issue aside, while looking like we are doing something?

Recycling is good, but how you define good needs to be looked at from an economic standpoint. Don’t take this as fact, but I think glass, paper, cardboard, some plastics, etc, actually require as much energy to recycle as is used in the production of new material. I’m pretty sure aluminum recycling saves energy. If there is no energy savings with certain forms of recycling, and if those forms of recycling require new infrastructures for the collection, sorting, and reprocessing of waste materials, again, how can that be made beneficial to the manufacturer? See, every company that produces a product that can be recycled or refurbished or repaired has to hire people and build facilities with which to perform those services.

As to whether recycling pushes the issue aside…hmmm. I’m not sure. I think when there are still a ton of products marketed on the merits of their disposability (Glad Ware, for instance) it sort of is a greenwash, depending on the integrity of the company. But the fact is people are bad at managing money and they buy a lot of crap they don’t need or use. The evidence: yard sales, thrift shops, ebay, Dr. Phil (seriously, take a look at how some of his guests indiscriminately blow money out their asses on really stupid stuff), dumpsters, etc. Maybe you ought to survey what people are throwing away. For that matter, take a look at goods consumption as a function of the availability of credit. I’m sure you’d find an undeniable connection there.

I have read a little bit about industrial ecosystems (term may not be correct, but it’ll get you on the right track), in which company A produces waste product 1, which is required by company B, whose production creates waste 2, which is required by company C, which produces waste 3, which is required by company A, and so forth. You could look into that, and from what I understand there is starting to be a fair amount of research available.

Interesting side note. You probably eat salads every now and then, right? Lettuce provides very little nutritional benefit, very few calories for us. But the production of lettuce requires an entire agricultural infrastructure, as well as a supply chain that may extend from the Napa Valley all the way to Portland, Maine. Far more calories are burned in the production and shipment of lettuce than it provides us.

Favorite products: A carved wooden bowl I bought at the Salvation Army for 88 cents, my classical guitar, and a $50 bike. The bowl was beautiful and I probably rescued it from some hipster’s ironic kitsch den. I sort of inherited the guitar and it provides me with hours of enjoyment and another mode for creative expression with little maintenance except for tuning. The bike is strictly functional, but I only bike for in-city transportation, so it would have been a waste of money to buy a “good” bike.

what possible advantages could there be for manufacturers who employ any of these 3 ideas?

Recycling: I think this is something companies would have a difficult time doing on their own, and probably should be done by waste management companies since they at least have some sort of infrastructure for the collection of waste. Someone used the example of a computer above. If you ever upgrade your computer or have a custom unit, you could have 20 different manufacturers to return it to. Think about the postage costs! There would be no direct benefit to the consumer. Recycling costs could just be integrated into everyone’s trash collection bill. By centralizing the process, maybe an economy of scale could make it viable?

Repairing - I think this is the most difficult one. Many products become technologically obsolete very quickly. Repair forces the manufacturer to continue to support obsolete technologies. In some cases. There’s also the issue of consumers’ repair skills. Does anybody make things anymore? If not, how can anybody be expected to know how to fix things?
That’s just the worst case by the way.

Rebuilding - this is very common in the machine business. Talk to Detroit Diesel and Cummins about engine rebuilding to learn the economics of it. Talk to auto salvage yards that rebuild cars. Firms that refurbish neglected properties. Isn’t rebuilding/modifying essentially the core of the software industry?

Ecological Commerce is definitely a good book to check out! Talks about the bigger picture of waste from one company that fuels another… very interesting. I think Paul Hawken wrote that book… cheers