Product End-of-Life Waste

Sarah Simon

18 min Read Time | April 3rd 2022

Key Takeaways

1

The topic is about a company’s products that get thrown away after the consumer has purchased them. It refers to the waste during the use and after it.

2

In your analysis, look at the company’s products and packaging to assess the total product waste, the type of waste, and its impact.

Find tangible equivalents that will enable you and readers to picture/relate the amount of waste produced.

3

Report on the different categories of waste and demonstrate how these specific types of waste are harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly, how long-lasting the impacts are, and how deep.

Executive Summary

Product end-of-life waste is about finished/manufactured products where one or several components pose a challenge for waste reduction in today's world.

Companies are responsible for product waste through the use and disposal of their products, even after they have sold them.

To assess the whole impact, be comprehensive and consider all the different types of waste the company is generating. This includes packaging and product waste.

Include the absolute amount of waste generated, its composition, and its landfilling rates.

When disposed of, different materials might have different effects on the environment. Make sure to specify them in your analysis.

Provide a benchmark when possible to help the readers better understand the scale of the company’s impact.

What is it?

Waste production is "the production of unwanted materials as a by-product of economic processes."

Companies are accountable for the waste generate throughout the use and the disposal of their products, even after they have sold them.

The consumer often bears the responsibility of discarding this waste. However, the company holds great responsibility for its products’ impact, as it manufactured and/or sold them. Different types of waste, which vary across industries, have different impacts on the environment.

For instance, e-waste and plastics can release toxic chemicals into the environment, ultimately leaching into underground water sources. Being one of the most complex waste streams, currently, only 17% of the 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste gets collected or recycled. On the other hand, when washed, textile waste releases microplastics on waterways, where they get ingested by marine animals and enter global food webs. Recent calculations conclude textiles release 35% of all primary microplastics in waterways, making it the single most polluting source of microplastic pollution. When textiles are finally thrown away, they can take over 200 years to decompose in landfills, leaching chemicals into the soil and releasing greenhouse gases.

To fully cover this topic, consider the whole lifecycle of a product. At the beginning of their lifecycles, companies might reassess the design of their products to make them easier to recycle, fix, reassemble, or extend their useful life. Product waste may be generated during use by its consumer. At the end of life, corporations might also implement upcycling, take back, and other product recovery programs to take care of their waste.

Adding information on absolute waste produced, its composition, and landfilling rates are essential to enable the reader to better assess the scale of the company’s impact.

Some of the types of waste linked to companies’ products include:

  • Plastic waste

  • Hazardous waste

  • E-waste

  • Textile waste

The waste associated with the company’s products can impact the environment by contaminating air, water, and soil. Also, whether through direct exposure or environmental damage.

E SDG PRINT 12

SDG Choice

Impact Assessment

In your analysis, examine the company's product end-of-life waste considering the whole lifecycle of the products sold. To quantify the impact, assess the absolute end-of-life waste generated, its composition, the packaging (where relevant), and the absolute amount in landfills or our oceans.

Introduction

The introduction should describe the broader impact issue to set the stage for the reader. 

  • Provide enough context information about the environmental impacts associated with the waste generated from the use and disposal of the company's products or the components present in the company’s products. 
  • Include data about the amount and the type of waste generated in the world or the industry and the environmental effects of the waste disposal.
  • Provide information about the general recycling practices used for the products or materials present in them.
  • What is the global/industry scale of the problem? How is this type of waste harmful to the environment? Are these types of materials recyclable? How much is actually recycled (recycling rate)?

Core Analysis

Total products sold might be available in the company's CSR/Sustainability annual report, so check there first. Yearly hazardous waste produced should be expressed in metric units, i.e., tonnes, metric tons, or kgs.

You can use this online converter to translate the imperial system's tons (US tons) to metric tons.

It is essential to focus on the present impact of the company's products that have reached the end of their useful life today, contributing to the global waste problem, as opposed to the future impact of assessing products that were sold in the latest year. 

How can you measure the impact of products' end-of-life waste as of today?

For this, it is important to know the lifespan of the products in question. If the lifespan is, say, 10 years, then we need to look at the products sold 10 years ago, as well as: 

  • the materials that make up the product(s), 
  • their impact on the environment, 
  • whether they are recyclable or not, and 
  • how much of it is actually recycled (recycling rate)

Caution: Lifespans and Thresholds

It could be very difficult and almost impossible to assess products' end-of-life waste in cases where the product has a long lifespan, such as an aircraft and its parts that have a lifespan of over 25 years. However, if products have a very long lifespan (above 15 years), then it probably does not contribute massively to the global accumulation of waste, as compared to products with shorter lifespans (cars, e-waste, medical waste, single-use plastic, etc.).

Therefore, it is less an issue of finding the impact today for products that have a longer lifespan, and it is better to evaluate the impact of products that have shorter lifespans. Taking the same example of the aircraft, not only is it nearly impossible to assess how many aircrafts a company manufactured 25 years ago that have reached their end of life today but also these parts are eventually sold or auctioned off for reuse/recycling. Aircraft parts have a recycling rate of more than 90%. Hence, such products are not posing a significant negative impact on the environment.

The only exception to this is when there is direct impact data and the environmental impact is detrimental.


    1. If the company has not disclosed the total products sold, consider the following methods to estimate it. Remember to make it clear that the company has not revealed this information and that it is being calculated by using alternative methods:

    • Look at the company's sales and the average price of its most sold products. By dividing sales by the average price, you might get a fair estimate of products sold.

    • If the total items produced by the industry are available (i.e., garments made in a year) and the company's market share, you can estimate the waste from the company's products by multiplying its market share by the industry's production.

    • Look for close competitors that disclosed this information and, by comparing market shares or sales, estimate the total waste generated by taking their average. When choosing the competitor, make sure to double-check that they indeed produce the same type of product.

    Make sure to be comprehensive and include all the end-of-life waste generated by the company. Organizations might publish only part of it in their reports. Go an extra step and think about its business, the materials it needs to deliver its products, and the materials that make up the products. 

    For instance, consumer goods corporations might only disclose the use of plastic packaging, but they might be liable for other non-plastic packaging waste and waste associated with their products.

    If the entirety of the portfolio is too complex to address, you can:

    • Focus on the product that makes up the majority of the company's sales.
    • Where there is no one major product(s), you can discuss the products that cause the most detriment to the environment based on the materials (e-waste, chemicals, heavy metals, radiation, pathogens, or others).

    You may use studies as proxies to report the impact and use the framework to describe the what, how much, and who.


    2. Make sure to mention what type of waste the company produces, as types of waste have different impacts on the environment. If the company is not disclosing this information, you might look at the composition of the company's products, information about a competitor, or industry information to estimate this composition.

    3. The absolute amount of waste landfilled is a critical point to mention. Companies might disclose how recyclable their products are. However, this does not mean that this percentage effectively gets recycled, as it often relies on available and special infrastructure that is not present everywhere. 

    To add nuance to your analysis, include the actual recyclability rate of the type of waste and estimate how much ended up in landfills.

    4. You may include significant initiatives the company has set to reduce its overall end-of-life waste production. Consider the entirety of the product's lifecycle. 

    Be critical of the company's initiatives and make sure to avoid remediation or anecdotal information by disclosing and quantifying the broader issue first.


    5.
    If the company has set specific end-of-life waste reduction goals, disclose them to the reader and provide information about their progress.


    6. You may compare the company's waste production with the industry average or a close competitor if that number is unavailable. You should not use human-centric equivalents.

    Make sure to report the most recent year and include varied sources in your research. Cross-checking data and being critical of the information provided will help you add nuance to your analysis. 

    Add value to your readers and go beyond the company's CSR report by going the extra mile of including additional metrics, studies, and sources to make your analysis robust and the impact value and scale are clear.


    Caution: it does not make sense to discuss product end-of-life waste at the beginning of the supply chain (beginning of its life) to those extracting it, going downstream through multiple parties, and recovering some bits to be able to consider it a closed-loop.

    For example, a car company uses steel and other metals, and writing about product end-of-life waste makes sense to write about it as it is about the company building the cars and eventually them becoming scrap/waste. This is what this topic is about: products that are at the end of their lives. It is too indirect to talk about the steel producer who sold it to, for example, Toyota then receives some parts back again to melt it and sell it again.

    Consider the materials that are harmful to the environment, as this is more impactful than other materials like steel and aluminium that can easily be recycled.

    Specific Example: Coca-Cola is the Top Global Polluter of 2021, using 3Mn tonnes of virgin plastics a year

    Context:

    In 2019, 368 million tonnes (t) of plastic were produced globally. It takes about 20 to 1,000 years for plastic to break down naturally. An estimated 8Mn t is thought to enter oceans, harming marine life and disrupting the global fisheries industry. Furthermore, the toxins in plastic are harmful if ingested or leaked into the soil or environment.

    Absolute waste generated and composition breakdown:

    Coca-Cola (CC), the world's largest non-alcoholic beverages company, used 5.3Mn t of packaging in 2020. Of this, 44.9%, around 2.37Mn t, were plastic bottles, 24.7% aluminum and steel cans, 28.8% glass bottles, amongst others, and just 1.6% refillable plastic bottles. However, CC's actual packaging waste might be higher, as CC only reports data on primary consumer packaging. CC uses around 3Mn t of virgin plastics each year on its production, equivalent to 88.5% of its total plastic procurement, estimated at 3.39Mn tonnes. Considering 56% of CC's packaging material mix is plastic, the company's complete packaging waste is estimated at 6Mn t.

    Recyclability and landfilling rates:

    Coca-Cola claims 90% of its packaging is currently recyclable where infrastructure exists. Unfortunately, 91% of plastics worldwide end up in landfills, which means that despite CC's recyclable design, 3.08Mn t of the company's plastics are landfilled.

    Lifecycle waste reduction efforts and goals:

    In 2021, Coca-Cola pledged to introduce recycled plastic bottles and consume 50% recycled material in its bottles and cans by 2030. The company also developed the first 100% plant-based bottle prototype. Despite CC's efforts, Coca-Cola was named the #1 Top Global Polluter of 2021 based on a study that analyzed 330,493 pieces of plastic. Since 2018, the recorded plastic by the company has more than doubled, showing the company's initiatives have had little impact.


    Conclusion

    Decide if the company's net impact has been positive or negative, and give the reader a concise summary of the scale and persistence of the matter. The conclusion should add no new information.


    Describe the scale of the impact by taking into account:

    1/ The breadth of the impact

    • Is the impact local, national, or global?

    • How many people are concerned? Thousands? Millions? Billions?

    2/ The depth of the impact

    • Is the life of people concerned deeply affected, or does the issue just marginally impact them?

    • Are the changes brought by the issue profoundly changing society or the planet?

    3/ The persistence of the impact

    • How long would the impact described last for? Months? Years? Decades?

    • How reversible is the impact described in the impact analysis? Can it be easily stopped/extended?

    More on Lifespans - up to 15 years

    Apparel, Accessories & Footwear

    Up to 5

    (Source 1, Source 2)

    Only 12% of materials used in clothing are recycled in the world.

    Containers & Packaging

    0-1

    These products are discarded the same year that they are purchased.

    Analyses can use the data from the latest available year for this industry.

    E-Waste

    (consumer electronics, appliances, medical or lab equipment, etc.)

    Up to 15

    (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3)

    The lifespan varies based on the devices and equipment offered.

    In 2019, only 17.4% of e-waste was recycled globally.

    Automobiles and Auto Parts

    10-12

    The lifespan depends on the auto part, but in general, automobiles have a lifespan of 10 to 12 years.

    Vehicles remain hazardous to the environment.

    Recycling rates vary across the world – 89.6% in the EU.

    There are still some materials from end-of-life vehicles that cannot be recycled, known as Automotive Shredder Residue (ASR), which is hazardous, and generally ends up in landfills.

    Single-use plastics

    0

    Half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once and then thrown away.

    Other forms of plastic  HDPE, PVC, PET, etc.) are used in making a wide variety of products

    -

    Although the lifespans for all forms of plastics outside of single-use plastics are over 15 years, its waste is now considered one of the most significant environmental threats. As its lifespan is very long, so is its impact, especially microplastic contamination and bioaccumulation.

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