If one looks closely at the concept of cradle-to-grave responsibility for products through life cycle practices, it is apparent that design changes to enhance recyclability can cause problems elsewhere in the life cycle of the product. One of the simplest examples involves substituting steel for plastic parts on an automobile. This certainly enhances recyclability but, because it increases weight, it causes more fuel to be consumed during the use phase of the vehicle. Given the long use phase of modem automobiles, the net environmental impact of such a substitution will most likely be negative. Similarly, advanced composite materials are generally more complex than the materials they replace. This makes recycling more difficult, but the lower weight and the better durability of such advanced materials yield environmental benefits that more than offset the negative environmental consequences of postconsumer disposal of such materials. The trade-offs at the disposal, manufacturing, and use phases are extremely complex, involving, for example, trying to balance different kinds of pollution, different end points, different subjects, and different locations. Somehow the designer needs to comprehend the whole life cycle and take account of these extremely complex trade-offs. When one considers how difficult it has been to decide whether polystyrene or paper cups are more environmentally correct, this would seem to be a tall order for products as complex as automobiles. The designer must also consider trade-offs among recyclability, cost, and performance. Obviously, it is necessary to find some way to simplify the analysis for the designer. In this regard, VRP is developing simple design preference guidelines, which provide a first step in working through this problem.
One of industry's greatest concerns is that the government will intervene and dictate answers to these difficult problems by means of the conventional command-and-control regulatory approach. The concern is that the application of inflexible regulations on product design will harm the competitiveness of the domestic industry without improving—or possibly even degrading—the environment, as mentioned above. The problem with such regulations is that they do not allow the flexibility to experiment with different approaches and technologies. They also tend to pit the producers against their customers. By providing little consumer incentive, such regulations tend to be difficult to implement.
Furthermore, as with corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards, such regulations are fraught with differential competitive implications. If, for example, Congress dictates inflexible command-and-control recycling regulations, research and development on advanced materials would be seriously curtailed. Further, inflexible recycling regulations that fail to consider the life cycle trade-offs may well have a net negative effect on the environment. The problem is