Sunday, July 30, 2017

What is the worst product ever marketed?



The worst product ever marketed: the disposable butane lighter. Wasteful, expensive, non-recyclable, using non-renewable materials, having benign alternatives (matches). In short, evil. And yet, it was hugely successful. Image from Wikipedia 


Greens often exaggerate in inviting people to save energy and be happier by staying in the dark and eating insects. However, it is also true that sometimes wastefulness goes a few notches higher and becomes truly a scandal. It is the case of the ordinary disposable lighter. Bic alone produces almost a billion lighters per year and has produced some 20 billions of them in the past 30 years. The whole world production is probably of a few billion per year. A good example of a successful product, but is it a good product?

The disposable lighter is surely practical but also, if you think about it, a very bad deal. It contains some 5 cc of butane, that you pay, typically, more than $1. That means around $200 per liter, or $800/gallon. You wouldn't be happy to pay that kind of money when you refill the tank of your car. And, being powered by a fossil fuel, butane, every time you light up one you add some CO2 to the atmosphere, some of which will stay there for tens of thousands of years.

Then, the disposable lighter doesn't contain just non-renewable fuel but plastics manufactured from fossil fuels and also polluting. Then, it contains metals such as cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, praeseodymium and more. These metals are classified as "rare earths;" they are not so rare as the name seems to imply, but they are not so common, either. And the lighter is thrown away after use and it will never be recycled. The rare earths it contains will be lost forever.

Is all that enough to qualify disposable lighters as "the worst product ever marketed"? Well, everything can be questioned, but if you line up the characteristics of a bad product as 1) uses rare and non-renewable resources, 2) is not recycled and not supposed to be recyclable, 3) is manufactured on a large scale, 4) it has non-polluting and less expensive alternatives, there are few examples other than lighters for which you can tick all the four boxes. I can hardly think of anything so wasteful to set something on fire, no matter whether you are a professional arsonist or simply an ordinary smoker.

After all, what was so wrong with using the old matches? Matches contain only recyclable materials: wood, paper, phosphorous, sulfur. I can't see anything that can be done with a lighter that cannot be done with a match, except that a lighter can burn steadily for a longer time. But if your purpose is to light up a cigarette or a kitchen burner, it makes no difference. And, by all means, there is no way that a lighter would cost less than a match, at least if manufactured on a comparable scale.

So, disposable lighters are all an example of how a combination of financial factors and government regulations can push a bad product to dominate the market. It is, after all, what has happened with fossil fuels, still gathering large government subsidies, despite the damage they are doing to all of us.

In the case of lighter vs. matches, the playing field has been made unfavorable to matches from the beginning, because they have been traditionally taxed by governments (also lighters, in some cases, but not always). Add to that the rapid expansion of the cigarette market during the past decades, with some six billion cigarettes sold worldwide every year, and growing, some large companies saw their chance. They engaged in the large scale manufacturing of lighters and they crushed the match manufacturers, mainly small companies that couldn't match (indeed!) the financial power of large corporations. The advertising power, too,  played a big role, with the appeal of colored and fashionable items that could also be collected. And it was world domination for the disposable lighter.

Could we reverse this demonic trend? Maybe there are signs of an inversion of the tendency and, not long ago, I saw again courtesy matchboxes appearing in an Italian Hotel. Maybe it was because finally (in 2015) the Italian government decided to abolish the tax on matches, a good idea that, unfortunately, arrived at least 50 years too late (the French Government did that in 1999). Whatever the case, it is high time that someone realizes that some ideas, such as disposable lighters, are evil to the bone. And that the mythical "free market" cannot turn evil into good.

But maybe you think that the old matches are passé? In this case, we have technologies for getting rid of the obsolete propane lighters without having to get back to the somewhat primitive matches. For instance, we have spark lighters that use only electricity. They are a solid state alternative to propane lighters in the same way as photovoltaic energy is a solid state alternative to fossil energy. In the picture, you see one of these super hi-tech lighters in the hands of my daughter, Donata.


So, eventually, we learn what's the good way to do things. Too bad that it is almost always too late.






17 comments:

  1. There is at least one good use for a Bic lighter. Survivalism. Nothing beats it, except in extreme cold. Matches get wet and don't light well in wind. Not to say there should be a billion a year to waste, just that they aren't completely wasteful in every instance.

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    1. True: lighters are insensitive to rain and wind. But if you think of an emergency situation, there are many alternatives to lighters. There are "stormproof" matches and other clever tricks to light fires in an emergency

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  2. Hi Professor Bardi - Bic lighters, we saw them at sea... Not good. Oh, a very interesting read along these lines is the book 'Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade' by Adam Minter. kind of mind boggling actually.

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    1. Yes, I was thinking of that movie, too

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  3. I just think of all the future archaeologists digging these things out of landfills and wondering what the hell they were for. Not to mention that other ubiquitous Bic product, the plastic biro.

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    1. The lighting mechanisms will be scavenged and used to light touchwood for the fire in the cave

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  4. How about the nail polish on Donata's fingernail or the mascara on her lashes? Ticks all the same boxes, depending on where the color comes from, and has no practical use whatever.

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    1. Yes, unfortunately there would be also a lot to say about unsustainable and polluting cosmetics.

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  5. Ugo
    James Lovelock used to say the chain saw was a key product. This was due to the sheer leverage it enabled. In the case of forest destruction though I guess he was wrong. It was always easy to ring-bark trees and later burn them when dry. Which brings us back to fire-lighters, but the concept of 'leverage' in environmental destruction could still be useful. I think that the invention of 'financial products' might well be 'up there' - harking back to your previous post.

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  6. Actually I think the worst is now bottled water. Let's take fresh water, wrap it in plastic, and then through the bottle in the ocean. Meanwhile we can cut anything associated with public water supplies --- http://www.occupy.com/tags/detroit-water-crisis

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  7. People who know me or have taken the trouble to read the volumes I have written on dematerialism, ERoEI* (E-R-o-E-I star), vector monetary systems, and fractal government know that I am in essensial agreement with Professor Bardi - except, perhaps, that I envision a sustainable society on Earth as a garden, provided that a way can be found to eliminate resource hierarchies, the profit motive, and markets, which I consider necessary to achieve a steady state economy after considerable degrowth. That said, it occurred to some of us on Running on Empty 2 many years ago that conservation would probably result in population growth in a society that had not embraced degrowth, which would, in turn, lead to an even greater catastrophe when collapse finally comes.

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  8. hmmm. the car, and the internal combustion engine in general, has got to be billions of times worse than the cigarette lighter, given that it has facilitated, directly or indirectly, to the burning of most of the worlds crude oil, the rapid growth of cities, agriculture and other infrastructure over the earth like cancer and probable future extinction of most life on earth. at least smoking primarily effects the user, not others and the environment, and is somewhat 'self terminating' if you know what i mean.

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    1. Yes, but you could argue that a car is better than a horse-pulled cart. But you can hardly argue that a lighter does anything better than a match. Then, of course, quantitatively cars do much more damage.

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  9. you could argue just about everything humans have ever invented, done or made is 'problematic' in one way or another, with unintended consequences down the line. including exploiting horses and other animals, and burning stuff, with any technology. the wooden match and lighter made from plastic, or the horse and IC engine. they are all part of the same story. finding better ways to exploit ever more energy, and accelerate our trajectory towards extinction :)

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  10. How about the gum wrapper survival lighter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LAunryCu9c

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  11. As I wrote in the previous posts comment section, the disposable lighter is a typical example of the way this foolish (capitalist) system blocks overall social development and faesable ways for overcoming our ressource predicament.

    The production of billons of lighters creates thousands of jobs and thus provides all those workers with the means to consume other nonsensical products. Big lighter production thus adds significally to the overall GDP and makes the capitalist owners a lot of money.

    If everybody used nigh indestructable, reusable, electric lighters, with a life span of maybe 50 years, the company could sell one for every customer every 50 years, instead of 50 days and would have to fire all but a hand full of their personnell. Where is the profit for capitalists in that scheme?

    If this was widespread in our industry, and we stopped using disposable products and use products that last decades instead, our "economny" would soon collapse (and all the billionaires would stop raking in the money).

    So if some politician would read your post and issue a law that stops the production of reusable lighters and other nonsensical products as "lavender aroma, color printed, toilet paper", tissue paper, plastic bags, etc. to really make a difference in our resource drain, he would pretty probably be responsible for a major economical crisis.

    Also he promised "growth", full employment and stability before all else, and he will do so even if it means producing nonsensical, disposable products till the oceans are filled up with plaxtic.

    Incidentically the producers of these nonsensical products get very rich in the process while millions of people toil in stupid, useless and in the end harmfull and future threatening jobs to do so.

    Why, I ask those who do cry "politics" if I point such things out, can't we stop this foolishness if it is not for our incapability to replace capitalism with something that actually would make sense?

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  12. The "Smart Phone" without a doubt. Far more addictive than heroin or crack cocaine, and responsible for a thousandfold more wasted hours and lives.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017