There’s not a lot of good news out of the U.S. about recycling and waste lately. Cities are cancelling recycling, plastic is overwhelmingly everywhere, and e-waste is described as “a tsunami” by the UN. Is anyone doing anything about all this, besides switching to paper straws?
The answer is a firm yes, if you look to Europe. There’s not much room for responsible products and waste management in the European news that makes it to the U.S., but take a look and you might be surprised at what’s happening. You could even find yourself a tiny bit optimistic! No promises, but here’s a primer on the latest moves to tackle big waste and reuse problems.
France Wants to Put Product Lifespan Right On the Box
Sometimes you don’t know what a product is like to repair until it breaks down. You find out too late that it doesn’t last as long as you hope, that repair parts are scarce, and that it takes two hours to replace the battery. Not so if there’s a sticker on the box, with a color code and a 1-10 rating that combines ease of repair and access to spare parts
Starting in 2021, that’s what buyers of appliances and electronics in France could start seeing. France’s Secretary of State to the Minister for Ecological and Inclusive Transition, Brune Poirson, proposed the initiative, with mandatory participation by manufacturers.
There could also be a QR code on the label that would provide details on the product, as well as the environmental impact in producing it. There’s already a similar program in place in Austria.
The measure is intended as a blow to planned obsolescence, and was inspired in part by a consumer advocacy group’s complaints against printer makers. Epson, the group claimed, programmed its printers and cartridges to report being out of ink and unusable long before the cartridge was actually empty. The original complaint from Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée, a consumer group known as HOP, also named Brother, Canon, and HP as taking similar steps to encourage new sales. This is illegal under a 2015 French law, which makes it a serious crime to deliberately reduce a product’s life to increase its replacement rate.
HOP (which also sued Apple during “batterygate”) applauds the lifespan labeling move, but would like to see it have more teeth. Manufacturers with less ecologically sound goods could pay taxes into a fund that would partially pay for consumer repairs, HOP suggests. A usage meter on devices like TVs, laptops, and washing machines can help people gauge how long until their product needs typical maintenance.
In Sweden, There’s a Plan to Dispose of New Stuff
Sweden is so efficient at recycling and waste disposal, they have to import waste from other countries to keep their energy-generating incinerators burning. No, seriously. The recycling and reuse of Swedish trash is a mind-boggling 99 percent, with only the remaining 1 percent in landfills.
There are many moderate ways, and one big way, Sweden accomplishes this. The moderate ways:
- Most disposable items, like cups and bags, are made from degradable plastics, and cost more to encourage reusable alternatives.
- Citizens have long been used to sorting their waste into categories like organic waste, paper, glass, and metals.
- Some residential blocks offer vacuum tubes for collecting waste through underground lines.
- Organic waste generates biogas that powers cars and buses, while other waste is burned for municipal power. Air quality reports are frequently updated and publicly available.
The big way: Under a 1994 law, any producer, transferrer, or importer of cars, tires, packaging, electronics, electrical gear, batteries, or paper must ensure that their product is collected, transported, recycled, or otherwise disposed of after it is discarded. In other words, you can’t make a bajillion plastic detergent bottles unless you can ensure a system for the plastic’s sound disposal. The same goes for laptops, cellphones, bluetooth headphones, and other gear.
What this does is bring together the makers of similar products to jointly collect their stuff. In particular, the Electric Circuit Association (WEEE in its Swedish acronym) handles e-waste collection and disposal in Sweden, versus the patchwork of spread-apart sites with drop-off restrictions in the U.S. This results in things like gadget collection bins at supermarkets.
Germany Prioritizes Repair Over Patents
At first, the Der Spiegel story about a change in German car parts laws makes you think that Germany is way behind the U.S. Visible car parts—mudguards, headlight assemblies, hoods—were, until recently, only produced by the original manufacturers, and sold through official channels. Under a proposed new law, third parties would be able to make parts. Great, you might think—Germany is catching up.
But the important thing is seeing what the two sides are saying, something you can see even in a Google-translated version of the short post. Car makers say they need to protect every aspect of their car designs, including headlights and side mirrors. They need that guaranteed revenue for “investing in innovation,” a German auto maker trade group stated, and third-party parts could compromise safety and reduce vehicle values. Forgive us if “investing in innovation” doesn’t seem like what’s happening.
But the Minister of Justice proposing the law change, Katarina Barley, has a novel idea: if a part is used for repairing a car, the design protections (read: patents) should be eliminated for other parties. While this might only apply to cars for the moment, it could point toward a future in which common sense is applied to restrictive patents that keep things from getting repaired, be they cars, computers, or cordless vacuum cleaners.
Each of these stories shows what can happen when people refuse to believe the default narratives: things are built to be disposable, there’s no way to save recycling now, patents must always be held sacred. It’s refreshing to read about new, strong measures to fix a broken system.
Top image via PublicDomainPictures.net