Increasing availability of consumer electronics offers the potential to improve quality of life, extend educational access, and improve efficiency of industrial processes, yet introduce their own set of challenges including increasingly diverse material supply chains, the fastest growing waste stream, and high life cycle resource demands. A significant body of research has been developed to understand material and energy flows across the product life cycle, but to date, that research has neglected to understand aggregate material flows across a community of interrelated products that are consumed, used, and disposed of together.
This research explores that research gap, first evaluating the possibility of natural dematerialization due to technological innovation as a means of reducing material flows across the life cycle. A case study of a laptop computer over subsequent generations reveals that innovation is being realized as improved performance, rather than reduced material consumption, and thus total product mass is relatively constant over time. Extending the boundaries of the study from a single product over time to a group of products that interact within the average U.S. household reveals that, although per product material consumption stays relatively constant over time, community consumption increases as more products are consumed. Similar research has been conducted evaluating energy consumption by a community of products, resulting in a recommendation for a more energy efficient community of products. Lack of data linking community structure and consumption choices, however, raises the question of whether consumers would willingly adopt these alternative communities.
Therefore, the final phase of the research collects data regarding consumption choices, product interactions, and changes in community structure, and models changes in community structure as the result of increasing technological awareness and improved product quality. The results from the model indicate that these types of improvements may shift the community structure, they do little to reduce community material consumption. Future research efforts should be directed at “closing the loop” and improving material recovery and recycling, in addition to educating consumers to move them toward more sustainable consumption (i.e. in general, consuming less).
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Kasulaitis, Barbara V., "Evaluating Material Consumption at the Intersection of Technological Innovation and Shifting Consumer Demand: A Case Study of Consumer Electronics" (2018). Thesis. Rochester Institute of Technology. Accessed from
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