The opposite of built-in obsolescence

Manufacturers should be encouraged to make products that last longer, retain their retail value and are more readily recyclable after use, according to green consultant Peter Lang. Lang is co-founder of the charity Green and Away and a former Adviser to the Green Deputy Mayor of London. Writing in the International Journal of Green Economics, he suggests sustainability will only be achieved by promoting growth in high-quality goods and the phasing out of “shoddy” products.

“Society should be seeking growth in the quality of goods and services,” he says, “This change from quantity to quality is necessary because Western industrialised economies are already consuming beyond the planet’s carrying capacity.”

Lang explains that without changes in taxation and regulation, there will not be a cultural shift towards such high-quality goods that last longer, are more easily repaired and maintain their value on the second-hand market. Eradicating the manufacturing culture that leads to stickers proclaiming “No user serviceable parts” on electrical goods and plastic cases that either have no screws or cannot easily be opened for do-it-yourself repair, under the guise of “health and safety” represents an important part of this. Without this and other changes, we will continue to dispose of electrical goods, furniture, kitchenware, household goods and other products prematurely.

“The suspicion is that manufacturers are confident that their goods will be reliable for a year, but not much longer,” says Lang. “The cost of the product when new seems to make little difference: a £50 video recorder has a one year warranty, as does a £15,000 car,” he adds. “A cynic might be grateful that our planet takes all of 12 months to circle the sun: if it was less then warranties might be shorter too.” Longer warranties and guarantees seem only to apply to things like cutlery, which tend to lack moving parts or any likelihood of falling into disrepair without particularly severe handling and use.

He suggests that changes that are both financially and also culturally attractive will encourage consumers to opt for better-quality products and so nudge the manufacturers to improving their goods. Essential to such endeavours is strengthening existing “fit for purpose” legislation that protects consumers. He believes that products should either be designed “for life” or at the very least come with a label indicating life expectancy so that consumers can make a more informed decision as to which product to buy.

“To some these changes may seem harsh, but the crises of climate change, water and air pollution, and waste from manufacturing are already becoming huge,” says Lang. If we can change the manufacturing and consumer culture to choose high-quality over shoddy, longer lasting and more easily repaired, then we might again achieve a society that appreciates this quality and reduces dramatically our demands on raw materials, energy and waste facilities. Who knows, we might one day see a market in antique kettles and televisions that still function when plugged in!

Peter Lang (2011). Promoting the growth of high quality goods and the phasing out of shoddy products International Journal of Green Economics, 5, 126-132

Rebalancing the nuclear debate through education

Better physics teaching with a particular emphasis on radioactivity and radiation science could improve public awareness through education of the environmental benefits and relative safety of nuclear power generation, according to leading Brazilian scientist Heldio Villar. He suggests that it might then be possible to have a less emotional debate about the future of the industry that will ultimately reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

To environmental activists, nuclear power and environmental preservation are two antagonistic concepts. Nevertheless, nuclear power can generate huge amounts of electrical and heat energy with minimal impact on the planet, particularly in terms of much lower carbon emissions and pollution than is seen with power generation based on burning fossil fuels. Because of this cultural clash, activists have prognosticated doom for a world if we pursue the nuclear energy option, leading to public distrust of the nuclear industry and its relatives, nuclear research installations and particle accelerators.

“The introduction of the theoretical bases of radioactivity, radiation physics and nuclear power plants in the environmental education curricula will certainly result in a greater awareness of the public towards the reality surrounding radiation and radioactivity,” says Villar of the University of Pernambuco, who not surprising also works for Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Commission. “This initiative, coupled with a more realistic approach towards nuclear risks on the part of nuclear regulators and licensers, has the potential to make nuclear applications – not only in electric energy production but in other areas – more palatable to a public squeamish of another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl and the specter of nuclear weapons, rendering it more prepared to reap the benefits thereof.”

Ironically, in the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear power was once hailed as the best option for an energy-starved world. Nuclear reactors were seen as modern, reliable and, above all, capable of producing electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. Into the 1970s, the oil crisis sparked the first major interest in going nuclear on a much wider scale. However, even before Three Mile Island, activist groups such as Greenpeace were sounding unwarranted alarm bells and popular movies such as the China Syndrome, which does not have a disastrous ending, were fuelling the anti-nuclear movement.

Villar points out that it is widely accepted that Brazil and several other nations, are entirely capable of launching successful nuclear power programs, given their expertise, the availability of nuclear fuel and the pressures such as a lack of coal and the rising price of oil. “Electrical energy is scarce and obviously expensive,” says Villar, “a situation seen in several other countries.” Supposed “green” solutions, such as hydroelectric power, which has already been fully exploited in Brazil, as well as gas turbines, solar and wind power, tidal power and biomass, do not represent a cheaper alternative to nuclear he asserts.

Villar, H. (2011). The ‘threat’ of radioactivity: how environmental education can help overcome it International Journal of Nuclear Knowledge Management, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1504/IJNKM.2011.042006

Heavy metal – in and around the lake

Heavy metal pollution of lakes has a seriously detrimental impact on people and ecosystems that rely on such bodies of water. According to a study published in the current issue of Interdisciplinary Environmental Review, researchers have focused on the physicochemical properties and toxicology of water from and around Thane City of Maharashtra.

Environmental chemist Pravin Singare of Bhavan’s College, in Mumbai, and colleagues highlight the fact that fresh water bodies all over the world are becoming increasingly polluted day by day and that this represents a growing problem in the developing world and beyond. They suggest that regular monitoring is crucial for the well-being and health of the surrounding population and as such, the team has carried out a systematic study to estimate the physico-chemical parameters and level of toxic heavy metal content in the Jail Talav and Kalwa Lakes of Thane City, as perhaps being indicative of similar problems with other bodies of water.

The team’s measurements suggest that the presence of heavy metals such as iron, copper, nickel and zinc, which are essential for life at trace levels are well above permissible concentrations making them a significant threat to ecosystems and a problem for those who rely on the lakes for drinking water or crop irrigation. In addition mercury, arsenic and cadmium were all present at much higher than acceptable concentrations.

South Asia is home to more a fifth of the world’s population, the researchers say, and is facing a serious water crisis. “This region, which is in the grip of flood and drought cycles, needs a long-term strategy for management of its water resources,” the team says. Unfortunately, strategies adopted so far have all failed in India, the team asserts, this is obvious given the poor quality of the water revealed by their measurements of Jail Talav and Kalwa Lakes assuming these are typical of the region as a whole.

Food chain contamination by heavy metals has become an important issue partly because of the potential accumulation in biosystems, through contaminated water, the team adds. “A better understanding of heavy metal sources, their accumulation in water and the effect of their presence in water on plant systems are particularly impertinent in ongoing risk assessments,” the researchers say.

Singare, P., Naik, K., & Lokhande, R. (2011). Impact assessment of pollution in some lake water located at and around Thane City of Maharashtra, India: physico-chemical properties and toxic effects of heavy metal content Interdisciplinary Environmental Review, 12 (3) DOI: 10.1504/IER.2011.041819