After years of being cought up in a frenetic lifestyle, the coronavirus has forced us to stop. Today there is more time to read, reflect and discover. We see how the reduction in the number and frequency of flights between different destinations, as well as the internal vehicular traffic in some cities have allowed the level of greenhouse gas emissions to drop. We have not only bad news, but also good ones.
Another good news is the new Action Plan for the Circular Economy published this past March 11 by the European Commission that will allow the products consumed in Europe to be increasingly recyclable, repairable and designed to last. Although this is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, it is worth asking whether this plan will favor us in the future.
The European market provides a critical mass that allows setting the global guidelines for product sustainability. This would not be the first time that a European initiative has impacted other latitudes. The 2003 European RoHS directive, which limits the amount of lead, cadmium, nickel and other toxic substances in electrical and electronic products marketed in Europe, has led to changes in the characteristics of these products worldwide. It is easy to assume that the guidelines that emerge from the circular economy plan will have a similar future.
The Plan challenges the linear economic model of take, make, use and discard, and works on a circular economy model, which takes into account the life cycle of materials and seeks to optimize their use and reduce the waste generated. It addresses two questions: How are the things we buy made? And how can we make the things we buy last longer?
The rationale for the Plan is irrefutable: we only have one Earth, and according to United Nations data if we do not change drastically, in 2050 world consumption will be equivalent to that of three planets. Therefore we cannot continue consuming resources in the same way. As consumers, we are used to the logic of a market that makes us constantly consume. We have allowed products to be designed not to last but to be consumed frequently.
This is related to planned obsolescence: a concept that is more than a century old. The first example of this phenomenon is said to be that of the incandescent light bulb, which was originally designed by Thomas Alva Edison to last 1500 hours, but was then imposed a maximum duration of 1000 hours, due to lucrative interests of those who had its marketing control.
Another example worth remembering is that of nylon stockings, which were redesigned by their manufacturers in the 1940s with the purpose of reducing their useful life and stimulating sales. In other words, we have lived all our lives in a world that has motivated wastage. However, that idea must change.
Repair or discard
The Plan intends that the user of an item has the option to repair it without having to discard it. This can be achieved, for example, by providing the consumer with information on the shelf life of products and the availability of services, spare parts and repair manuals.
The Australian NGO, Choice, conducted a study in 2018 on the life expectancy of various household appliances. The first conclusion is predictable: you get what you pay for. A low-quality toaster lasts two years, and the best-quality toaster can last up to six. In any case, it seems that every toaster is destined to become waste after that period because it is sealed when we try to open it or because the repair shop does not have the necessary spare part.
It does not make sense to ask why these devices are not manufactured with screws to open them and why they we are not provided with the spare parts to be able to make the repairs ourselves. We all know that manufacturing companies want to grab the lucrative repair business or compel the consumer to buy the new version of that product as soon as it is released.
Seventeen states in the United States have attempted legislation associated with the right of consumers to repair their electronic products. However, to date, none has been approved. Several companies, such as Apple, Toyota and John Deere, are against the enactment of that legislation because giving access to information on their products promotes counterfeiting and it is extremely complex for them to deal with product warranties.
Here and now
In Costa Rica, legislation that comprehensively addresses the issue of the circular economy is not yet in sight. However, in June 2019, the OMINA Foundation organized a seminar to persuade local actors to adopt circular models as a way to create prosperity and reduce energy and raw material dependence. In addition, some companies share the goal of leaving the linear economy and betting on a circular economy, including Florex, Florida Ice and Farm (FIFCO) and Holcim.
The new Action Plan for the Circular Economy arises, precisely, at a time when health authorities of all countries are asking us to stay more at home. Therefore, these days should allow us to moderate our consumption habits and go out and buy only what is necessary. Anyway, very often we buy things that we do not need and that end, in the best case scenario, in a landfill.
The delicate days we are living could help us put things in perspective. Do we need to go to the office every day or can we stay home from time to time to limit our greenhouse gas emissions? Do I buy that latest cell phone model or keep the one that still works? For many years we have abused and damaged the Earth. Today, the coronavirus gives us something positive: a pause to reflect, generate change and repair. It is a right of our planet.