Remanufacturing Doesn’t Always Make More Sense Than Building New Products

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The conventional wisdom is that it always makes sense to reuse or remake products rather than to make new ones–why make a new tire when you can retread an old one, and why manufacture a new inkjet cartridge when you can refill a used one? But conventional wisdom is often wrong. In some cases, it may actually be more resource and energy-efficient to manufacture new products, according to a new study from MIT.

While it almost always costs less cash and uses less energy upfront to remanufacture products, the savings sometimes don’t add up when a product’s lifecycle is taken into account. Take a tire. Retread tires require less energy in manufacturing, but their higher rolling resistance means than energy savings are lost because of the extra gasoline required to drive with them. And since many appliances are more energy-efficient than their older counterparts, it often makes sense to ditch an older version that needs to be fixed and just buy a new one.

Some reused products have benefits that go beyond simple energy savings. MIT gives the example of cell phones remanufactured for developing countries. These cell phones often go to markets that didn’t have them before–which means more people recharging cell phones and sucking up energy. But at the same time, these cell phones can contribute to society in major ways–such as in spreading revolution (like what we’ve seen recently in the Middle East).

So what can we do? Not much. There isn’t any definitive guide to whether or not an individual product should be saved or ditched. Just know that your insistence on repairing and recycling may not always be the best idea.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.