In Mexico, around 90 per cent of waste still ends up in open landfills. So how can a circular economy gain momentum in this Latin American country? This question was explored by Isabella Sohns during her combined internship at the Oeko-Institut and Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC). Granted, repairing or using second-hand smartphones and textiles is quite a common practice in Mexico. However, current policies and legislation provide few incentives to keep products in use for longer. “In this blog article, I would like to look back briefly at our project in which we produced a guide with 10 recommendations to encourage longer product usage,” says Isabella Sohns.
We are in the midst of human-induced climate change. If I look around for tips on what I can do to adopt a more climate-friendly lifestyle, the advice that I read most often is to save electricity, switch to green energy, avoid single-use plastic and choose eco-friendly transport. We have already compiled a list of “10 steps towards sustainable consumption”, which is available in this blog.
Our constant desire for the most modern and up-to-date consumer goods means that the usage times of our products – whether electronic devices or clothing – are steadily shrinking. What’s more, the manufacturing and disposal of these products release substantial quantities of greenhouse gases. So let’s just recap on how we can best protect the climate as consumers:
- Use products for as long as possible
- Repair instead of buying new
- Lend, borrow and share
Why obsolescence, and why Mexico?
Our predominantly linear production systems, which have to satisfy growing consumer demands, use up large amounts of resources and energy. At the same time, products are becoming less durable and are being replaced more quickly. This premature product ageing, whether natural or engineered, is known as obsolescence. Siddharth Prakash explains what this means in theWenden bitte! podcast.
Without a circular economy, obsolescence results in a growing mountain of waste. The situation is particularly alarming in Mexico: here, around 90 per cent of waste still ends up in open landfills. Mexico’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) is keen to remedy the situation with its “zero-waste agenda”, which aims to achieve compliance with the waste management hierarchy. Prevention, reduction and reuse of waste come first, before disposal and recycling.
This sparked the idea for the internship project: I was keen to analyse and compile strategies to extend the duration of product usage times, for the benefit of Mexican policy-makers.
Method and project implementation
The aim was to compile a policy brief covering four thematic areas and, on this basis, develop recommendations enabling Mexican policy- and law-makers to improve product usage times. The project consisted of the following work packages:
- Collect international examples of good practice on regulatory mechanisms and measures to extend product usage times,
- Identify suitable business models,
- Provide an overview of existing policy instruments and established business models in Mexico,
- Calculate the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that could potentially be saved with longer product usage times in Mexico.
In the first work package, we identified 11 regulatory mechanisms and measures which have a positive impact on the duration of usage times and product durability. Together with INECC, we studied how all 11 could potentially be applied in Mexico. As the final step, we devised recommendations on ways of expanding the regulatory framework for those mechanisms and measures which do not exist or could be improved in Mexico.
Our recommendations for policy instruments in Mexico
The recommendations are based on international examples of good practice. We suggest how each of the regulatory mechanisms can be adapted for Mexico.
- Guarantee law: During the statutory guarantee period, sellers are liable for defects in a product. Within this period, they are obliged to repair or replace the product or refund the amount paid if the product is defective or does not conform to quality specifications. The longer the guarantee period, the greater the incentive for manufacturers to design longer-lasting and more easily repairable products.
Mexico’s current consumer protection law provides for a guarantee period of just 60 days after purchase. For large, potentially long-lasting domestic appliances such as stoves, refrigerators, freezers, washing machines and dishwashers, this short period does not have an incentivising effect on the production of durable goods (design for durability). We therefore recommend that the guarantee period be aligned with the expected lifespan of the products, as in Finland and the Netherlands.
- Ecodesign criteria: In EU law, the Ecodesign Directive establishes criteria obliging manufacturers of energy-intensive products to reduce energy consumption and other negative environmental impacts at the design stage. However, ecodesign can offer so much more: for example, it can ensure that products are easier to reuse and repair.
In Mexico, there is already a standard on the integration of ecodesign into product development; however, compliance with the standard is voluntary. We therefore recommend making ecodesign criteria mandatory.
- Right to repair and provision of spare parts: The right to repair means that authorised and independent repairers are able to repair products on a non-discriminatory basis, with easy access to spare parts, repair information, repair tools and diagnostic software. This increases consumer choice and strengthens the repair market. The USA is a frontrunner in enforcing this right. Here, the Right to Repair was first established in the automobile industry.
In Mexico, a right to repair exists only during the 60-day guarantee period and is not comparable to the Right to Repair in the USA (which obliges manufacturers to offer security updates over a period of several years). The existing right should be extended for a longer period, with non-discriminatory access guaranteed for independent repairers.
- Provision of software updates: Anyone wishing to continue using their smartphone after four or five years may well find it impossible to download new software updates. As a result, the use of the digital device becomes unsafe, making the purchase of a replacement more likely. There is currently no requirement in Mexico for software updates to be provided over a multi-year period, so we recommend its introduction. Here, the EU Directive on certain aspects concerning contracts for the supply of digital content and digital services can provide guidance: it obliges manufacturers to regularly update their products, thereby maintaining long-term functionality and IT security.
- Information on repairability or durability: France has introduced a Repair Index, which obliges manufacturers to inform consumers about the repairability of their products through the index. The index rates the repairability of a product on a scale from 0 to 10. The labelling is an incentive for manufacturers to opt for repairability in their product design, and may influence consumers’ purchasing decisions.
In Mexico, there is no obligation to provide information on repairability and durability. We therefore recommend its introduction.
- Consumer education: Consumers are informed about alternatives to buying new products and about options to extend product usage times. In Mexico, there are already various programmes and actions targeting different population groups.
However, we recommend raising public awareness of alternative consumption practices, such as sufficiency, and the associated business models: examples are product service systems (PaaS) such as Leasing, Second-Hand, Repair & Remanufacture and Sufficiency & Design (e.g. modular product design, which enables consumers to carry out repairs and update hardware).
- Economic incentives: Claiming repair costs in the income tax return, providing municipal funding to cover personnel, labour or premises costs for repair and reuse businesses, promoting repairs via voucher schemes or VAT reductions – these are just some of the options that make a repair more attractive and affordable than a new purchase. Austria and Sweden offer inspiration: Sweden, for example, applies a VAT reduction for repair businesses. Additionally, consumers can claim 50 per cent of the labour costs (up to a maximum of SEK 25,000) for repairs of large household appliances in their income tax returns. And for the over-65s, the maximum is increased to SEF 50,000. Austria launched various schemes under which households were able to claim a repair bonus for selected electrical appliances. No such incentives currently exist in Mexico. We therefore recommend their introduction.
- Green public procurement: The public sector has immense purchasing power and can thus strengthen the market position of sustainable products. To that end, a definition of, and compliance with, sustainable procurement criteria are required. Longevity, repairability and reusability are criteria with the potential to extend the duration of product usage.
Mexico already has legislation in place to regulate public procurement; it provides for the establishment of committees that define sustainability criteria for procurement, leasing and services. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is mentioned as one of these criteria. In addition, we recommend the inclusion of further criteria such as repairability, reusability and durability.
On the following points, no specific recommendations were made as the situation is less clear-cut:
Regulations against planned obsolescence: Planned obsolescence is the deliberate limiting of the lifespan of a product by the manufacturer in order to increase the repurchase rate. There is currently no legislation in place in Mexico on how this should be dealt with, although a draft law is in preparation. However, regulation of planned obsolescence in the form of criminal sanctions is viewed critically by many experts, as it is difficult to prove. Accordingly, such a law would primarily have a symbolic effect. No specific recommendation is made here.
Business models: We identified four business models with the potential to extend product lifespans and usage times: 1) Second-Hand Markets; 2) Repair and Remanufacturing; 3) Sharing and Leasing; and 4) Sufficiency and Design Strategies. There is currently widespread distribution of the first two of these business models in Mexico; the other two offer potential for development.
Wear your jeans for longer, use your smartphone for longer – and save greenhouse gas emissions
In order to illustrate the order of magnitude of savings based on the smartphone and textiles product groups, we calculated the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that can potentially be saved if Mexican consumers used their clothing and smartphones for twice as long as the average. To that end, we used existing emissions values from life cycle assessments and determined the current usage times by conducting an online survey of 50 Mexicans.
The result: It was found that wearing jeans (as an example of the “textiles” product group) for longer would save around 4.9 million tonnes of GHG emissions; the figure for smartphones is 1.3 million tonnes. Overall, this is equivalent to the combined annual per capita GHG emissions of 1.6 million Mexicans. The calculation was based on a life cycle assessment which did not specify a timeframe for GHG consumption but was based on average use of 200 times. If the garment is worn second- or third-hand, for example, this saves the GHG emissions that would be produced in manufacturing a new pair of jeans (see Policy Brief, pp. 47-48)
Isabella Sohns is studying for a Master’s in Environmental Science and Technology at TU Berlin with a focus on Management of Sustainable Development, Recycling Technologies and Life Cycle Assessment. She completed her internship via the ASA Programme at the Oeko-Institut and Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change.