End of product life - how many get a proper burial?

End of product life…it’s something we don’t talk much about - it isn’t studied often and rarely ever is it a topic broached with consumers during research - It has that morbid overtone that only trash collectors and recyclers would take interest in. We certainly don’t want a consumer to think a product would ever stop working!

I’ve always been impressed with across-the-board European recycling - the mindset of the EU is in proper form on this topic. But here in the States there’s a sharp drop in recycling directly related to any rise in efforts required TO recycle (ie, we’re lazy and our recycling infrastructure is in catch up mode).

Do you recycle your plastic milk jugs and drink bottles?
If you have to take off the cap will you still recycle the bottle?
If you have to take off the cap and rinse the bottle will you still recycle it?
If you have to take off the cap, rinse the bottle and collapse it will you still recycle it?
If you have to take all the recycling a distance for pickup will you still recycle?
Now, how about a product you have to take apart - to recycle even just a few components of it?

During my corporate design life I was always the pesky voice of material identification (much to the chagrin of the rest of our staff). I wanted every piece of recyclable material on our products stamped with it’s identifier code and the recycling symbol - no matter how difficult the product might be to disassemble or how rarely any consumer might actually do it - I saw a long term benefit that would hopefully grow over time. I have the same discussion with our clients now that we’re on the development service side.

Yesterday I took apart and recycled a product I designed in 2004, a pressure washer (we won an Appliance Design award for it and its sister product in 2005) - it had lived a useful life and then some - the pump finally quit (no doubt corrosion related) - most people would just chuck the whole thing but I took it apart, looked for those material identifiers, tossed those pieces in the recycling bin and only trashed what was left. I spent nearly two hours messing with all that but to me it’s worth it.

Am I alone in my quest to save the world one piece of injection molded, blow molded, extruded plastic at a time?

Not sure is those questions were rhetorical or not, oh well…

Anyway, despite my laziness with recycling, I do think it is important for designers and manufacturers to consider the end life of a product. If you want the recycling of certain components to be the consumers responsibility, then make it simple, easy and obvious for them to do so.

I would never had thought to try to recycle components to a pressure washer after it crapped out. It would have just gone on the curb with a “free” sign.

  1. In my last two jobs I put identifiers on all the parts that I touched and pushed others to do the same. Unfortunately, we have to use some plastics that are less-recyclable (PC, ABS or glass filled). Still, I think every effort is worth it.

  2. I disassemble for recycling too. I think people forget about batteries. The last Dust Buster I had, I took apart just to recycle the batteries. I wonder how many don’t even think of it…

Mind you, I also pick up car batteries that I find in parking lots, pick trash up around my neighborhood and sometimes even pick out recyclables from neighbor’s garbage just to put in my recycle bin.

Ray - you’re such a Canadian! Thanks for all those efforts.

Thanks for that input Greg - I was never able to convince our ID group (overseen by engineering at the time) to structure the forethought necessary to make recycling easy at the consumer level. Introducing those steps into the development process was always met with friction. I hope one day soon it’ll become a natural step in the development chart.

I’ve always liked the idea that every product has a local ‘disposal’ tax, that goes to the local council/ city/ whoever-is-in-charge-of -your-landfill, so someone gets paid to take it apart, recycle, reuse. Don’t know if it is actually implemented anywhere.

I also like the idea of retired engineers/ inventors/ old guys (gals) in sheds taking in busted things and fixing them up, rewiring motors, etc. like The Institute for Backyard Studies

I like that effort as well. In our area there are a few small engine repair places and a few authorized parts places but I fell prey to the “ten years of good use was enough” mentality and bought a new pressure washer - I think my willingness to take the old one apart helps me validate that I did all I could, or that I did enough. I’d bet only one in a thousand, or ten thousand, would take the same time to disassemble such an old product.

No disassemble!!

I’ve always wondered if recycling on the consumer end actually makes sense. It doesn’t seem like the average person is actually very good at it. Even designers, who are supposed to know about plastics, seem to struggle with it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t recycling facilities have to sort out everything anyway? Why not just have consumers put everything into one bucket and pay people who know what they are doing to sort it at a trash/recycling facility. I know this won’t feel as good to certain people who enjoy being involved in the process, but would’t it be more effective in the long run?

Okey, Scott startet this topic with a hint at Europe and in the flow of discussion
I’d like to elaborate on that just a bit:

Let’s have a look at how this is taken care of by zee Germans.

First of all we really do try not to make a mess to begin with,
and than we get “professionals” to clean up what we have left
over with a rather lavish lifestyle.

We have a small room in our new (1959) house adjacent to the
kitchen. It was originaly designed by the architect to keep
food cool there, now at least half of it is devoted to sorting out a family
of fours thrash into:

green/brown box: organic leftovers that can rot
Blue sack: paper
Yellow box: all plastics
White sack: glass
trash can: The rest.

You don’t have to clean the plastics too much, that is taken care
of at the recycling facilities. And a schwab would never toss in a
half empty joghurt, anyway…

All that trash sorting made the closure of most landfills possible and
the modern trash burning cogeneration power plants are running low
on plastics, which they were designed to have to get the heat up.

In addition to that almost 20 years old system since 2 years you are not allowed to toss
electric appliances into the trash, anymore. There are (too small) containers in every neighbourhood
where you are supposed to put them in. These go to disassembling centers, where most
of the valuable parts get dissected from the plastics. (the containers get freequently “raided”
by eastern european “entrepreneurs”, who like to rather get the whole pressure washer to repair it.)

Well and every small plastic part we produce HAS to be labled (European Union)
over 20 gramms (I think) it has to show the material code, year of manufacture
and manufacturer.

Its not easy but there is another, sustainable way to keep most of our lifestyle.


P.S.: I am really glad the architect willfully left the central heating out of that little
cabinet, while the garage incorporated heating !

Awesome stuff mo-i. Thanks for elaborating - I’ve witnessed (and complimented) very similar efforts in many Western European households. It’s a refreshing approach to end-of-life product considerations.

We pay for trash by weight. Recycling (and composting of food rests) is free. We have trash and compost drops in the stairwell, and recycling bins in a dedicated room entered from outside. I don’t think we throw out a bag of “real trash” more than once/month.

For products we have recycling centers you have to drive to. First they sort out the working stuff (by letting them know if it works or not when you drop it off) and sell it/donate it. I don’t actually know what happens to the non-working stuff.

What I am missing is recycling of clothes. The donate bins are everywhere, but they are not for torn pants or shirt with spilled wine. I think H&M have started something that you can recycle textiles (any, not just theirs) in their stores. Might be pilot program?

I am annoyed that my apartment building does not have any recycling whatsoever. They said they have wanted to implement a system, but that the city would make it expensive to do so (not sure why this is). There are dedicated shipping-crate style recycling boxes around in shopping area parking lots, but it is rare to find a spot that will recycle every type of good… you’ve got to make a “glass trip” and a “plastic trip”, etc. Very odd.

@engio: we have a similar trash drop but without the compost… sounds like a great idea though.

I like Sanjy’s idea about the having it streamlined, where you can bring the product back whole and not be charged for it. I think something like this is much more believable than expecting the average person to call around, find the right place, drive there, and pay a fee. I had to check what my city does and there are some big hoops to jump through.