Microwaves could be as bad for environment as cars

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Researchers suggest that electricity consumption by microwaves can be reduced by adjusting the time of cooking to the type of food. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

New Delhi: Microwave use across the European Union (EU) emits as much carbon dioxide as nearly 7 million cars, said a new study released by the University of Manchester on Wednesday evening.

The study by the UK-based university found that microwaves emit 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in the EU, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 6.8 million cars. EU comprises of 28 member countries, including France, Germany, UK and Sweden.

The researchers used life-cycle assessment (LCA) to estimate the environmental impacts of microwaves, taking into account their manufacture, use and end-of-life waste management. They investigated 12 different environmental factors, including climate change, depletion of natural resources and ecological toxicity.

As per the study, the main environmental “hotspots” are materials used to manufacture microwaves, the manufacturing process and end-of-life waste management. For instance, the study highlighted that the manufacturing process alone contributes more than 20% to depletion of natural resources and to climate change.

“However, it is electricity consumption by microwaves that has the biggest impact on the environment, taking into account its whole life cycle, from production of fuels to generation of electricity,” it added.

The study revealed that microwaves across the EU consume an estimated 9.4 terawatts per hour (TWh) of electricity every year which is equivalent to the annual electricity generated by three large gas power plants.

It found that, on average, one microwave uses 573 kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity over its lifetime of eight years which is equivalent to the electricity consumed by a 7-watt LED light bulb, switched on continuously for almost nine years.

“This is despite the fact that microwaves spend more than 90% of their lifetime being idle, in the stand-by mode,” it added.

The study stressed that even though microwaves account for the largest percentage of sales of all type of ovens in EU, with numbers set to reach nearly 135 million by 2020, their environmental impact has never been analysed in detail.

The researchers recommended that efforts to reduce consumption should focus on improving consumer awareness and behaviour to use appliances more efficiently. They suggested that electricity consumption by microwaves can be reduced by adjusting the time of cooking to the type of food.

It also emphasised that the existing regulation will not be sufficient to reduce the environmental impacts of microwaves and recommended that it will be necessary to develop specific regulations for these devices targeting their design which will help reduce the amount of resources used to make microwaves and waste generated at the end of their lifetime.

The study said that waste is another major problem because due to their relative low cost and ease of manufacture, consumers are throwing more electrical and electronic (EE) equipment away than ever before, including microwaves.

It highlighted that in 2005, across the EU, 184,000 tonnes of EE waste was generated from discarded microwaves and by 2025 this is estimated to rise to 195,000 tonnes, or 16 million individual units being sent for disposal.

As per the study, another major contributing factor to the waste is reduced lifespan of microwaves. It is now nearly seven years shorter than it was almost 20 years ago and research shows that a microwave’s life cycle has decreased from around 10 to 15 years in the late 90s to six to eight years today.

“Rapid technological developments and falling prices are driving the purchase of electrical and electronic appliances in Europe. Consumers now tend to buy new appliances before the existing ones reach the end of their useful life as electronic goods have become fashionable and ‘status’ items. As a result, discarded electrical equipment, such as microwaves, is one of the fastest growing waste streams worldwide,” said Dr Alejandro Gallego-Schmid of the School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science of the University of Manchester.

Agencies

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