Afterlife of Product

I bought a new Laptop computer yesterday and was super happy about it. The new laptop is expected to be faster, better in every aspect of technology. Interestingly, this was the exact feeling I had a few years back for my existing laptop.

The value of every product depreciates over time, and there comes a time when the perceived utility value becomes zero. That could be in other terms, Death of the product. When we acquire a new product to replace the old one, we are in a mindset of ‘Getting rid’ of whatever remains of the product. I donated my old laptop (working condition) to a nonprofit educational institute and completely forgot about it.

The same was the case with other electronic goods, old furniture, Used Vehicles, clothes and so on.

Complete lifecycle of the product looks something like this:

Raw material –> Final Product –> Reached user –> Usage cycles –> Discarded at death –> Ends up in a junkyard, partially recycled and partially reaches Landfill.

Throughout the lifecycle of the product, hundreds of natural resources are consumed almost in every phase of the lifecycle of every product. Only the amount of water used throughout this lifecycle itself will be a huge quantity consumed.

All of nature’s creations disintegrate into nature, without leaving much trace of their existence. Humans for ages have defined rituals to accelerate the process of disintegration of dead bodies. Based on religious beliefs, dead bodies are either buried or cremated so as to get completely disintegrated into nature.

Here are some thoughts about this death and afterlife of the products.

  • Value for the usage lifecycle: Good balance in the usage lifecycle and product costing
  • Respectful death: Develop a product that dies a respectful death after the usage cycle is over
  • Well defined afterlife: Products should have a defined afterlife, after the official death
  • Disintegrate in nature: Products could disintegrate into nature completely as if they never existed.

1. Value for the usage lifecycle: Determine Cost Per Use

I remember, in my childhood, products were bought to last a lifetime. Home furniture would be built to last a lifetime, easily 30 to 50 years. I remember inheriting a wristwatch, a cycle, which were used by my father for many years, and I used the same for a few years before selling or scrapping. So the Usage lifecycle of products used to be fairly large. Today, my new smartwatch or a laptop becomes either obsolete or stops working in less than 5 years. Let’s calculate the cost per use (CPU)

  • My father’s wristwatch was Rs 200 / 20 years = Rs 10 per year
  • My smartwatch is Rs 30000 / 5 Years = 6000 per year
  • Children’s digital watch received as return gift is Rs 150 / 0.01 usage years = 15,000 per year

Return gifts received in children’s birthdays are the worst products I have seen. The pieces of plastic (generally) are bought for a marginal cost from the market, and 90% of the products are not used by the receiver. after a year, these products land in the trash without use.

Manufacturers create products designed to die in a short time so as to create the market for the new. How to incentivize (or punish) the industries to create products which have larger lifecycles? At least make the products modular to the extent, the updated components could be easily replaced, instead of discarding the whole hardware.

Here are some thoughts to Cost Per Use philosophy

  1. Purchase products with optimal cost per use: I bought a cheap soldering iron (Rs 170), which broke, after the first use. I should have bought a product which had a sturdy build, costing me 3 times of the cheap variant. I could use the product for 100 usage cycles. So which product was more affordable?
    1. Cost per use for the cheap product = 170 Rs. per-use
    2. Cost per use for the better product = 510 / 100 = 5.1 Rs. per-use
  2. Ban single-use products: Policymakers could BAN single-use products in certain categories, like pens, food and water utensils, plates, bottles, spoons and so on. Alternatively, use eco-friendly products which easily disintegrate in nature.
  3. Design long life of products: Make it stylish to use products for the long duration. Design things to last longer during the usage lifecycle.
  4. Modular Design: Imagine a smartphone having a modular design, where the user could just upgrade the camera, memory, processor as required and still keep up to date with technology.

In most developing economies, people are eager to consume technology and industrial products, in order to make them affordable for the third world consumer, manufacturers often compromise on quality. Poor consumers don’t understand they are effectively these cheap products are much more expensive; because the Cost per use turns out to be very HIGH.

2. Respectable death to the products:

No consumer goods, or food processing company even think of what happens to the products they are sold. Their responsibility ends when consumers buy them. Companies at max, offer after sales service to ensure products are used for a while. Manufacturers should clearly define death scenarios for the products they produce. Instead of remains of your car rotting in some junkyard, (which is also a disgrace to your brand) Your company should have a mechanism in place to take back the dead products so that you could salvage, reprocess components for processing new products.

A dead car rotting is as bad a sight as a dead body lying around on a busy road in the city. All products deserve a respectable death. The creator is the best person to handle this responsible processing of the dead products because the creator will exactly know the composition of materials.

The industry would actually benefit from this, as there will be savings in their raw material cost.  Apart from a huge brand value, they will create, by becoming a responsible industry.

The Policymakers should make it mandatory for specific industries to manage their dead products, especially battery manufacturers, to take back their old batteries.

3. A well-Defined afterlife of the product:

No product is or can be designed to last forever. Industries should clearly define the maximum lifespan of the product, and establish a predefined ‘Afterlife of the product.’ The afterlife could have many options after taking back the products, and processed at the industry premises.

  1. Refurbish and upgrade: After the death of the product, it is taken back and refurbished with the latest technology modules and reintroduced in the market.
  2. Refurbish to downgrade: The product can even be refurbished to downgrade. The downgraded products may serve an altogether different function. For example, the large computer cabinets becoming storage cabinets.
  3. Separated and recycled: Components being separated and either reused or recycled into raw materials of the next generation of products.
  4. Disintegrated into natural elements: Whenever possible components could be processed and disintegrated into natural components.

4. Products disintegrating in nature with the help of natural resources:

The best option would be developing products with appropriate materials and technology, in such a way, that, after the stipulated life of the product, a user could trigger a process of a fast decomposition into nature for the product as a whole or its components.

Water bottles made from biological compostable materials are good examples of this category. Imagine a dining table chair in the house, after serving its tenure of 5-7 years in the house, could be dismantled into parts and just buried in the backyard, to provide natural compost for the growth of kitchen garden.