Product Life-Cycle Management to Replace Waste Management

Michael Braungart


from Socolow, Andrews, Berkhout & Thomas (eds.), Industrial Ecology and Global Change, N.Y./Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 335-337




As “eco-restructuring” commences, new elements in our waste management infrastructure should be created.  These include a redefinition of product types to acknowledge their life-cycle environmental impacts; reallocation of responsibilities between producers and consumers for these products; product redesign for environmental compatibility; source-separation sites or “waste supermarkets,” and accessible repositories or “waste parking lots.”



Where We Need to Go

Industry has traditionally focused on production rather than waste management.  Over time this has led to the creation of chemicals and products for which no environmentally sound method of disposal exists.  Large-scale production has led in turn to significant waste disposal problems.  In order to shift from a primitive, low-efficiency type I industrial ecology to something more sustainable, a new infrastructure for waste management is required.

            Marketplace norms today define products on a spectrum from “consumable” to “durable,” depending on their useful lifetimes. However, to give prominence to environmental factors, it is useful to classify products according to their life-cycle, cradle-to-grave impacts.  The crucial distinction is between consumable products and service products. 

            Consumable products, such as washing powder or food, are purchased to be consumed, i.e. converted by chemical reaction into energy and by-products.  They are normally put out into the natural environment after only one use.  Service products, by contrast, are not consumed; rather they provide some service over and over again.  Automobiles, television sets, and washing machines are examples of products providing the services of transportation, entertainment, and cleaning.  Thinking prescriptively, an “eco-restructured” economy should differentiate its treatment of consumable products and service products.  All consumer products should be biodegradable or abiotically degradable, non-bioaccumulative, non-carcinogenic, non-teratogenic, non-mutagenic, and (in used concentration) non-toxic to human beings.  By contrast, service products could be less tightly constrained in terms of constituent materials, but more tightly constrained in terms of disposal.  A consumer requiring a service product would lease it from its producer or put a refundable deposit on its purchase: consumers would not own service products.  When a service product has served its function and needs to be renewed, the consumer would return it to the producer.  The producer, not the consumer, would be responsible for disassembly and recycling.

            “Waste supermarkets” would provide centralized locations for disassembly and recycling.  These could be expanded versions of today’s “buy-only” shopping markets: when shopping for new goods, the consumer would also do a “de-shopping” by returning used service products—including packaging as well as the automobiles, television sets, and washing machines just mentioned.  A waste supermarket would not be a dump site but rather a source separation warehouse.

            By giving products back to producers in a closed loop, aided by a deposit-return system of financing, incentive could be provided to maximize product disassembly and recycling and minimize expensive toxic waste.


Managing the Transition

Recycling markets already exist for certain service products, such as glass and paper.  And some consumable products such as food already are biodegradable, so that their dissipative use is not alarming.  However, many products, both service and consumable, are menaces after they are used: ultimately they will be judged “unmarketable.”  But they are part of current society and must be dealt with.

            “Unmarketable” products—those that cannot now be consumed or used in an environmentally sound way—are of at least three kinds:  (1) Service goods for which no appropriate recycling technology currently exists.  Present recycling for most materials is often a “down-cycling” because the materials and the products are of a lower quality after each recycling process (e.g. park benches or sound-proof barriers made out of recycled plastics).  (2) long-lived service goods, such as lead pipe, that outlast their producers in useful service, and thus need government involvement in their safe disposal because no firm is now left to be accountable.  (3) Consumable goods with toxic constituents, such as nickel-cadmium batteries, that society does not want to dispose of in a dissipative manner.

            In an eco-restructured economy, unmarketable products would not be manufactured.  In a period of transition, however, institutions would be needed to store such products safely and retrievable.  One can imagine a “waste parking lot.”  The waste parking lot would eliminate the current practice of dumping waste in irretrievable locations, where it is subject to leaching and high recovery costs.  Waste parking lots would have to be part of a larger restructuring program that would greatly reduce waste volumes; otherwise, storage would become unmanageable.

            Following the parking lot analogy, the government would build and maintain the structures, and the owners of waste would pay for renting the space within them.  The lots would be organized for homogeneity, so that identical wastes from various products could be stored together.  The owners of waste would remain responsible for the safety, stability, and maintenance of the stored items.

            Some advantages of the waste parking lot concept include enforcement of the “polluter pays” principle, clear realignment of responsibilities, rental costs as an economic incentive to develop new environmental technologies, and simplified reclamation of useful waste constituents in the future.



Key elements of the future waste management infrastructure involve industry, government and the consumer.  With the firm, consumable products should be designed for safe dissipative use, and service products should be designed for easy disassembly and recycling.  Governments should re-align responsibilities, encouraging leasing and other mechanisms, to ensure that producers have incentives to design products for lower life-cycle environmental impacts.  Governments should also encourage both waste supermarkets (to promote and simplify source separation and recycling) and waste parking lots (to store problematic wastes retrievably).  These are transition steps until the economy is able to produce sustainable products.