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Single-Life Products and Why Are They becoming an Issue?

Disposable Gets a New Name


We reckon if you can’t turn a product into something new once you’re done with it, or prolong its life if it breaks, it ought to be considered disposable.


If you use a product 1000 times before throwing it in the rubbish, would you consider that product to be disposable?

Most people would probably answer that question with something like: “Disposable? No Way! What the heck are you talking about? That’s clearly a reusable product you’ve got there.”

And that assessment would be fair enough. Because in today’s world, the term ‘disposable’ has become exclusively associated with single-use products. But we think this limited use of the word disposable when describing products is an absolute travesty! See we reckon if you can’t turn a product into something new once you’re done with it, or prolong its life if it breaks, it ought to be considered disposable. No matter how many times you initially use it.

But since the term disposable already seems to be taken, we’ve come up with a term of our own. A better term. A fairer term. A term that encompasses all products — both single-use and reusable — that we feel are ultimately disposable.

And that term is: ‘Single-Life Products.’

But simply coining a term isn’t going to get us very far is it? Probably best that we elaborate.

What Are Single-Life Products?

Simply put, single-life products are any products that are likely to end up as waste once their initial purpose has been served. So this must mean any product that’s recyclable or repairable doesn’t count as a single-life product, right? Well, not necessarily.

See there are plenty of products out there that can technically be recycled, but for various reasons the recycling process for that product just isn’t practical enough for it to actually happen.

(This can often be the case with products made from multiple materials. Different materials need to be separated before they can be recycled, which of course takes time and effort. If this process isn’t cost-effective, it’s very unlikely the product will be recycled. So even when you throw a technically recyclable product in the recycling bin, it can still end up as waste).

There are also plenty of products out there that are of course repairable, if you’ve got the tools, parts, expertise, or money to do it! (Nearly half of folks in the UK surveyed in 2020 said they’d buy a new tablet or smartphone instead of repairing their current one. Cost and inconvenience of repair were two of the main reasons for this).

Smartphone with screen removed and inner components exposed resting on dark surface.

Many products, including various modern electronic devices, are either too difficult, or too expensive to repair. So a lot of people end up just buying a replacement instead. Photo by Joel Rohland on Unsplash.

These ‘recyclable’ and ‘repairable’ products that are not practical to recycle or repair are also single-life products. Basically, if you have to really go out of your way to make sure a product doesn’t end up as waste, it is single-life! And that counts for reusables as well as single-use items.

But is this even a big deal? Shouldn’t one life be enough for these products?

Why Are Single-Life Products an Issue?


Every single time a new product is produced, some amount of energy and resources will be used up.


Reusable coffee cups, reusable cups and flasks made from coated stainless steel, most ceramics and drink glasses, many modern electronic devices. These are just some examples of single-life products. But so what? Why does this really matter?

Well, where do we even start?

Resources

Maybe it makes sense to start at the start. The beginning of a product’s life where resources and energy are required to actually make the product possible.

Every single time a new product is produced, some amount of energy and resources will be used up. (This is even true for products made from recycled materials, as energy will be needed to mould these recycled materials into new products).

And as resource extraction and processing is one of the main contributors to climate change and biodiversity-loss worldwide, it makes a whole lot of sense to try and limit our use of fresh resources as much as we conceivably can!

This is never going to happen when we still have single-life products, because the resources these products contain are never likely to be used again. What a waste.

Emissions

Factory with red and white stripy chimney emitting smoke next to motorway.

Unfortunately for every new product we produce, it’s very likely there are going to be some emissions involved! Photo by Marcin Jozwiak from Pexels.

Of course every time a new product is produced there are also emissions involved. Deadly, dangerous, planet-warming emissions! Each new product needs to be manufactured, packaged, and transported around the world. So wouldn’t it make sense to make sure every product has as many lives as possible?

Global Waste Crisis

Now we get to the part where the product has served its initial purpose. If it’s a single-life product, repairing or recycling it won’t be a practical or cost-effective option. And so, you guessed it, the product inevitably ends up as waste.

And that is a big problem. Possibly bigger than most people even realise.

Globally, we are producing more waste today than ever before, and worldwide waste is expected to nearly double by 2050. Not all of this waste comes from single-life products of course, but some of it does.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

What’s the Solution?

As we’ve seen, single-life products lead to increased resource extraction, pollution, emissions, and waste. Basically, they make this planet a less hospitable place for us to live. And the thing is, no product ever really needs to be single-life!


This is an issue that in some way affects every one of us, and if we want to, we can all be a part of the solution.


Before we ever even get to the production stage, it’s possible to eradicate single-life products by designing for circularity. So products are easy to repair, and practical to recycle.

And if we can combine circular design with other solutions like extended producer responsibility, legislation to make product repair more accessible, appropriate adjustments to recycling infrastructure, and collaboration between everyone involved, there’s no reason we ever have to produce a single-life product again.

But maybe the first thing you can do to tackle the issue is; share this article with as many folks as possible! Get the word out! Single-life products are not good enough and we all need to come together and do better! Design better, produce better, buy better, collaborate better, demand better!

This is an issue that in some way affects every one of us, and if we want to, we can all be a part of the solution.

For us, the solution has already begun.

This article was created by Adam Millett of Word Chameleon, in collaboration with Circular&Co.