Product longevity refers to a range of strategies that can contribute to moderating demand for new products by keeping existing products in use. There are three main opportunities according to Allwood et al. [23
]: extending product-lifetimes; increasing the intensity of product use; and repairing and reusing goods. We discuss each of these in turn with regard to consumer products, such as vehicles, major appliances, and personal electronic devices. When considering the suitability of various strategies for different product types, a study by Cox et al. [27
] provides a useful typology. From their research in the UK investigating consumer expectations of product lifetimes, Cox et al. [27
] identified three categories of products: “workhorses” such as major electrical appliances that are expected to last a long time (7–10 years); “up-to-date” products such as personal electronics, which had the shortest expected lifetimes (between 0–2 or 3–4 years); and “investment” products thatwere seen as quality items in which people invest and take extra care [27
]. Based on the typology by Cox et al. [27
], consumers are likely to be more interested in strategies for product longevity for “workhorses” or “investment” items. However, this does not reflect which products need to last longer from an environmental perspective.
Extending the life of products increases the material efficiency of the metals contained without the need for additional energy, as would be required for recycling. This is a particularly useful strategy for products for which the environmental impact of the production phase product is relatively high. The trend of shortening lifespans of products over time is due to the behaviours of both producers and consumers: producers aim to sell more products; consumers may desire new products and replace them before they stop working; and technological (but not material) obsolescence may also force consumers to purchase a new product sooner [27
], such as when new software ceases to function on older electronic devices. In the latter case, both the physical and technological life of products need to be considered.
If we consider the categories of products identified by Cox et al. [27
] for the metal-containing consumer products we consider in this paper, vehicles and major household appliances are likely to fit in the “workhorse” category, where consumers have high expectations for product lifespans. Some vehicles may also fit into the “investment” category. This would suggest that consumers would see benefit in extending the lifetimes of major household appliances and vehicles. In 2011, Australian Consumer Law was enacted and introduced consumer guarantees, which increased the requirements for producers to provide and repair goods so that they are “safe, lasting and with no faults” [28
]. This law is intended to protect consumers from faulty or unreasonably short product lifetimes and could encourage retailers to shift towards selling more durable, reliable goods. However, the length of time for which this new consumer guarantee should last, or how long a reasonable product lifetime should be, is subject to the opinion of the seller and, ultimately, the courts. Aside from this legislation, there are a lack of government or commercially driven attempts in Australia to increase product lifetimes.
Vehicles ceased to be manufactured in Australia in 2017 [29
], and the last refrigerator was made in Australia in 2016 [30
]. Manufacturing is currently diminishing in Australia, and there are consequently limited opportunities for Australian innovations in production. Therefore, it may be more appropriate for the Australian government to set standards for longevity on imported goods. However, the regulatory focus in Australia has been on the operational impacts of appliances, rather than on product longevity. The performance standards and labelling of major household appliances in Australia typically relate to energy or water consumption during use (e.g., Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) and the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) scheme [31
]). For example, the Australian Design Rules for vehicles, set out under the Motor Vehicle Standards Act
of 1989 focus on issues such as safety, vehicle emissions, and anti-theft mechanisms [32
]. Under these design rules, there may be opportunities to create standards for product longevity and reusability or recyclability.
For consumer products with short lifespans such as personal electronics, the majority of the environmental impact occurs in the production phase, so while consumers have low expectations for their lifespans, from an environmental perspective, there is a strong case for extending the product lifespan. As products are designed to be more energy efficient in the use phase, the environmental impact of the production phase increases. For example, for the iPhone 3, the carbon footprint of the use phase (49%) was similar to the production phase (45%) [33
]. However, this ratio shifted significantly with the iPhone 6s, which is estimated to create 84% of its carbon footprint during production and 10% during use, in addition to increasing its overall footprint [34
]. Research by the Australia Mobile Telecommunications Association found that between 2010 and 2014, the desire for new technology was the major reason for replacing a phone with the introduction of smartphones [35
]. However, as the rate of technological development has slowed, more people are starting to keep their phone for two years or more, and poor performance of mobile phones is now the major reason for replacing a mobile phone, indicating that extending the product life of mobile phones would have significant benefit [35
]. Rethinking the design of mobile phones and developing phones that are customizable to a user’s requirements promotes longer use times, as they can be upgraded or repaired more easily and personalized so the user develops an attachment to the use. There are now several organisations developing this idea, including “Fairphone”, which makes a modular, upgradeable phone and has plans to develop their phone as a service [36
]. However, these types of customizable mobile phones are not yet available in Australia.
Increase Intensity of Use
For products that remain idle or underutilized for large parts of their product life, material efficiency can be increased through increasing the intensity of use. New business models that facilitate asset sharing are emerging in the ‘sharing economy’, with the advent of internet-based platforms to enable online booking and payment for use [37
]. This phenomenon has strong links to product-service systems (PSS), where businesses combine products and services to deliver an outcome, so that the consumer pays for a service or access to a product [39
]. For business-to-consumer applications, intensifying product use through sharing of metal-containing products is most common for vehicles and bicycles, through bike-share, car-share, ride-share, and taxi-share.
Carsharing can have an environmental benefit for materials if using the service results in less car ownership and an energy and emissions benefit if it reduces car use. Three types of carsharing are described below: (1) Sharing of new assets owned by a business, which leads to fewer new cars purchased (by the business instead of privately); (2) Sharing of existing assets owned privately, which leads to no new cars purchased; and (3) Sharing of existing trips (ridesharing or taxisharing), which leads to a potential decrease in trips and a decrease in cars purchased. An independent survey of members of “GoGet”, Australia’s largest carsharing organisation (type 1) found that more than 60% of members had deferred the purchase of a private car since becoming a member [41
]. Other studies in theUnited States have shown that for each car-sharing car on the road, between 9 and 13 cars are taken off the road [42
]. Other business models are emerging in Australia, such as “Car Next Door”, where the public can list their own car as available for use during times that it is unused (type 2), thereby reducing the purchase of new cars. Smartphones and GPS technology are enabling real-time ridesharing, which matches drivers with riders as the trip takes place [43
] (type 3). However, presently in Australia, ridesharing or carpooling apps such as “CoSeats” or “ShareUrRide” tend to offer longer-distance intercity trips [44
], rather than commuting options. The taxi-sharing component of Uber—Uberpool—is not yet available in Australia [46
]. The material efficiency benefits of carsharing could be negated in the first type if a company overstocks sharing vehicles and increases the net demand for new vehicles. However, the evidence suggests this has not been the case, and the sharing of existing vehicles or existing rides generally has positive impacts for the environment.
Ridesharing faces limitations to becoming a significant replacement for private car use. Ridesharing can only be a regular transport alternative in certain cases, as it is usually informally coordinated and limited by the need to coordinate schedules between participants [47
]. Flexible ridesharing, enabled by ICT, attempts to provide a solution, but it is difficult to achieve the critical mass needed to be successful [48
]. During 2017, dockless shared bicycles emerged in Australian cities, with the general public gaining access to bicycles through smartphone applications, such as Ofo, Obike, Mobike, and Reddy Go [49
]. These bicycles have sparked controversy due to their scattered placement in public spaces [50
]. While shared bicycles can reduce carbon emissions if they replace vehicle trips, the process of competing dockless bicycle companies flooding the streets with bicycles to attain market dominance may create a net increase in consumption of metals. There is some evidence this is the case, with mountains of dockless bicycles being discarded in China due to company bankruptcies [51
In Australia, rent-to-own schemes or renting for events is more common [52
] than periodic short-term rental for electrical and electronic goods, which limits the potential for intensifying use of these items. Major electrical appliances, such as washing machines and dryers, can be shared through communal laundries in apartments, coin-laundries, and laundry services [53
]. However, other major household electrical appliances such as televisions and refrigerators may be less shareable due to: convenience/the frequency with which they are used; their immovability; or due to difficulty with transporting or finding space for shared use of goods [54
]. Smaller electrical appliances that are used infrequently, such as tools and gardening equipment, can readily be shared through tool libraries or through periodic rental. Various tool libraries exist in urban areas around Australia, operating on a membership subscription basis, such as “Toolo” near Sydney or “Brunswick Tool Library” in Melbourne [55
]; however, they are not widespread [57
]. There are also limited peer-to-peer tool renting platforms, such as “ToolMates” and “OpenShed” [58
]. Companies renting large, expensive, and rarely used tools are far more established and more numerous in Australia. These options for sharing major appliances can intensify use of products, particularly if they enable sharing of existing privately-owned goods. Studies elsewhere have shown up to 90% reductions in resource use associated with tool rental or tool sharing [60
]; and 30–90% reductions in resource use associated with shared laundries or laundry services [62
]. However, some benefits could be negated if significant transportation of goods is required to enable sharing [64
]. All sharing businesses are somewhat limited by the social acceptability of sharing rather than owning goods [40
Repair and Resale
With regard to our three categories of products, mobility (vehicles and bicycles) are most commonly repaired in Australia, and the automotive and bicycle repair industries are thriving due to growth in car and bicycle sales [65
]. Major electrical appliances and personal electronics are much less often repaired. The household appliance repairing industry is in decline in Australia, due to much faster technological change and falling prices for new household appliances [67
]. For smaller electrical appliances, such as kettles and toasters, repair services have almost disappeared [67
]. Consequently, profits are falling, and fewer people are being employed in the repairing industry for electrical appliances and electronics [67
]. Similarly, for electronic equipment, the low cost of new hardware means that malfunctioning electronics are often replaced rather than repaired, and the electronics repair industry is shrinking [68
]. This situation is problematic when we consider that Australia has the highest amount of e-waste in Oceania in both absolute and per-capita terms [69
]. The high volume of e-waste generated by Australia and exported to other countries could be significantly reduced by enabling options for repair on-shore and expanding the resale market. The barriers to this are likely to include the low cost of purchasing new items, the high cost of labour in Australia, the growing trend to replace rather than repair [68
], the limitations of poor quality goods, and the difficulty of obtaining spare parts [70
Another major limitation to repairing and reselling is the hoarding behaviours of consumers; there are an estimated 22.5 million mobile phones in storage in Australia [35
]. This is close to Australia’s population, which is currently 24.8 million people [71
]. Further, a survey of electronic products in Australian households in 2015 found that mobile phones and other small electronic devices are likely to be stored for some years after they are no longer used [72
], rather than being recycled, repaired, or resold. One in two Australian households are currently storing a fully functional smart phone [72
]. As the potential for reuse diminishes during this time in storage owing to obsolescence, measures to recover such products at the end of their first use offer benefits for materials efficiency, as well as capturing further economic value through second-hand trading.
While a large market in second-hand electronics already exists in Australia, much of it is focused on offshore sales to countries unlikely to have systems in place for safe recovery of materials at end of life [72
]. The international trade of second-hand electronic goods is legal if the goods are in working order; however, differentiating between goods destined for reuse and those that are waste is problematic, and the scale of the trade of illegal electronic waste is significant [69
]. In Australia, a large number of social enterprises, not driven by profit, undertake repair and reuse of electronic equipment. Although these enterprises are not usually profitable and may rely on government funding, they provide training and employment [72
]. Increasing the practices of repair and second-hand sales in Australia can mitigate and slow the flow of e-waste to other countries. One potential drawback could be where repairing prolongs the life of an inefficient vehicle or appliance. However, given the rapidly shortening lifetimes of electrical and electronic appliances, there is considerable scope to increase lifetimes without causing any significant rebound effects.