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Departments: First Word

 

  
   

The Downside of the Low Cost of Quality

Cost: check. Quality: check. Reusability: ?

by Dirk Dusharme

 

 

From a technological point of view, we live in a strange time. What used to be considered expensive electronic products (largely due to their development and manufacturing costs--of which cost of quality plays a part) are now commodities. Televisions, computers, DVD players and cell phones are now dirt cheap--sometimes even free--and the quality is good, or at least good enough.

But a low cost of quality on the front end is leading to a high cost of quality on the back end, in the form of electronic waste. I can’t think of one electronic device I own that isn’t disposable. When it becomes outdated or ceases to function, it simply isn’t cost-effective to repair. Three years ago, I bought a Sony five-CD/DVD changer for about $150. The unit lasted exactly one week past the one-year warranty. Cost to repair: $75-$100. No way. Instead, I bought a single CD/DVD player for $30 and threw away the Sony. It’s lasted two years so far, but when that breaks? You got it--trash-ola.

Who hasn’t disposed of nonfunctioning monitors, televisions or other electronic devices? Usually they’re not built to be repaired, or repairs cost about as much as a new and better unit. Quality has gotten sufficient enough and the cost low enough that a DVD player is no different from a Tupperware bowl. If you melt the bowl in your microwave, toss it. If you ruin your microwave as a result, toss that, too.

The situation with e-waste has become so bad that at the beginning of the year a new law went into effect in California that places an e-waste surcharge on all newly purchased video display devices. The money goes into a state electronic waste recovery and recycling account used to pay authorized e-waste collectors and recyclers.

This puts a whole new spin on the term “cost of quality.”

By the way, I think this is a necessary move. If end users have no incentive or mechanism to recycle e-waste, there has to be a cost up front. But what if in addition to quality coupled with low price, we added a third component to our products: reusability. It’s great that manufacturers can crank out $30 DVD players and $75, 15-in. monitors by the millions. (In 2000, more than 76 million CRTs were sold in North America, according to the Electronics Industries Alliance.) But what about product designs that allow easy, cost-effective modular repair or upgrade? What about an infrastructure that allows defunct or broken products to be returned for credit toward a new product, with the manufacturer then recycling plastics and metals for reuse? Until that happens, how about, on a community level, we push for once-a-month curbside e-recycling? Or, on a personal level, when we upgrade our 8-year-old, 19-in. television in favor of a 60-in. LCD, why don’t we take 30 minutes and run the old set down to the local thrift store?

The cost of quality at both ends of the life cycle needs to be examined. Quality should include not only the quality of the product itself, but also its impact on the environment. Or, as Phil Crosby might have looked at it, part of the conformance to requirements should be that the product is reusable or recyclable. If it isn’t, it hasn’t met the requirements and therefore is not quality.

For more on what you can do to reduce e-waste visit www.ciwmb.ca.gov/electronics.