Being an eco-friendly shopper this Christmas will take more than saying no to plastic bags when buying presents, a University of New South Wales specialist in the life cycle impact of products has warned.
Dr Sami Kara, from UNSW's Life Cycle Engineering and Management Research Group, says there are four steps people should consider to put a green tinge into this Christmas - ranging from how and what they buy, to how they use any new gifts they receive and how to dispose of any old items that get superseded.
These four steps will also help consumers make an environmentally friendly start to 2008.
Step One: Need Assessment.
"It may sound obvious but find out first if the item is needed," Dr Kara says.
"Don't be an impulse buyer. Make a list of not only what products you need but also what functionalities are required.
"Every day consumers buy either products they don't need, or items with multiple functions that they do not need.
"For instance, buying an air-conditioner that will be used a few weeks each year, buying a DVD player with DVD editing features or buying a camera with features only professional photographers need.
"Never forget that manufacturing extra features requires more resources, hence causes more environmental impact. It is quite common that a consumer only uses roughly 50 per cent of the functions of a product."
Step Two: Purchasing.
"The key to the environmentally friendly purchasing is to think about the whole product life cycle, not just the usage stage which is typically what is advertised by retailers and manufacturers - for example, fuel or electricity consumption," says Dr Kara.
"An educated consumer should ask the following questions: How is the product made? What types of materials are used? Are they recycled? Are any of them toxic? What happens at the end of the product's life cycle - can it be recycled?
"A long-lasting environmental impact reduction can only be achieved if these sorts of questions become regular customer queries."
Step Three: Sensible use.
"Once you've bought a product - or given one to someone - think about sensible use," Dr Kara says.
"Consumer products are designed and manufactured to achieve a certain function, so not abusing them will ensure the most efficient function. Following manufacturers guidelines is usually the best course of action: for example, mobile phones are communication tools so use your phone for essential communication rather than lots of additional energy-sapping activities. The same logic applies to your car: drive sensibly as even the most environmentally friendly car can produce a substantial environmental impact. Rapid acceleration increases fuel consumption by up to 25%. And on a hot a day, think about opening the window instead of turning on air-conditioner."
Step Four: Recycling.
"When a product reaches the end of its life, timely recycling is the key to a successful, close-loop system," Dr Kara says.
"This is particularly the case with small electronic items. If you decide to buy a new mobile phone or PDA, recycle the old one by using one of the recycling bins available in retailers. Don't leave it in your drawer. Almost a million mobile phones are sold in Australia every year, yet only 10 per cent of them recycled. The same principle applies to household appliances such as fridges. Don't leave the old one in your garage to keep the beers cold as older appliances consume more energy and so have a worse environmental impact."
Dr Kara says while engineers can create environmentally friendly products, achieving long lasting environmental sustainability is only possible if consumers send a clear message to manufacturers that they are concerned with the whole life cycle of their product.
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