How long is electrical and electronic equipment used nowadays, when do the first signs of malfunction occur, and what are the reasons for replacement? The Federal Environment Agency, in collaboration with Öko-Institut and the University of Bonn, are investigating the answers.
There has been ongoing public speculation for a number of years about whether manufacturers are purposely reducing the service life of products. This built-in wear and tear is often called 'planned obsolescence'. Up to now there has been a lack of data on which to base public debate, which is why the Federal Environment Agency has launched a study to collect reliable data on the lifespan and usage time of select electrical and electronic equipment. The study's researchers analysed data on small and large household appliances, consumer electronics, and information and communication technologies in the period from 2004 to 2012.
Preliminary results of the study do not yet provide any proof of targeted integration of defects in products. The second part of the study will be devoted to a systematic analysis of the causes of defects.
Flat screen TVs
Initial results show that consumers nowadays are more willing to replace otherwise functional flat screen TVs to acquire the latest technology. In 2012 over 60% of functioning flat screen TVs were replaced by 'better' devices. One quarter of consumers replace TVs due to defects. The average first useful service life of these replaced TVs was 5.6 years in 2012. In comparison the average first useful service life of CRT TVs was between ten and twelve years in the years 2005-2012.
Large household appliances
The study also claims that even the average first useful service life of large household appliances such as washing machines, clothes dryers and refrigerators decreased by one year to 13 years. One third of the purchases replaced appliances that were still working, but consumers wanted a better device. Some two thirds of purchases were necessary because of technical defects in the old device (57.6% in 2004 and 55.6% in 2012/2013). The proportion of devices which had to be replaced within five years due to a defect rose quite sharply, from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012.
The average five-to-six-year first useful service life of notebooks has remained nearly unchanged although the reasons for replacement have changed: whereas 70% of functional devices were still being replaced in 2004 in favour of newer technology and a desire for a better device, this accounted for only roughly one quarter of all replacements in 2012/2013. Another 25% of replacements in 2012 were due to technical defects.
Upon conclusion of the study at the end of 2015, the Federal Environment Agency wants to issue recommendations to manufacturers, consumers and legislators. "We already have the means to ensure a minimum service life in devices and to improve consumer information, for example through the Ecodesign Directive or the criteria for products which bear the Blue Angel ecolabel. The objective of the research project is to determine whether the minimum service life can be extended and then be verified, too", commented Ms Maria Krautzberger.
The interim report is based mainly on results of representative consumer surveys by the Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung on what is called the 'first useful service life' of products. The term refers to the usage time by the first consumer from the time of new purchase of a replacement device. Possible second service lives, that is the continued use of working devices in one's own home or elsewhere (as might be the case in TVs), were not taken into account nor were defective devices which were still in use after repairs.