design sustainability

Three ways to make a sustainable household appliance

What do you do when your kitchen or household appliances wear out? Chances are they end up in a bin somewhere. Many of them can’t be repaired, or were cheap enough not to make them fixing. Throwing them away is hardly a sustainable model, with valuable materials lost every time something is thrown away.

A recent Agency of Design project called Design Out Waste offered some possible solutions. They chose a toaster as an example, and designed three different ways to make it sustainable. It’s a great demonstration of circular economy principles. I’m sure there are other approaches, but here are three:

1. Make a toaster that will last forever:

toaster 1

Option one is a cast-iron beast of a toaster that is intended to last for decades. You’ll simply never need to buy another one. No heating element will last forever, so it’s still fixable, but robustness is the key principle.

2. Design a toaster to be repaired:

toaster 2

Option 2 is a modular toaster. If one toasting slot fails, it can be removed and posted away to be replaced, while the rest of the toaster will continue to work just fine. At the manufacturer’s end, the toaster modules are designed to be dismantled and reused.

3. Make the toaster recyclable

toaster 3

Finally, the third toaster is cheap and cheerful, but the most impressive innovation here is that you can stick it in the recycling. It doesn’t need any special manual process, and just uses existing recycling systems.

That’s the project in a nutshell. The agency has videos on each of them with more of the theory. And no, sadly you can’t buy the invincible toaster at the top. I’d like one too.


  1. The trouble with making invincible toasters, or any other electrical item, is that their life cycle costs are much higher. The cost of producing an electrical item is only a small part of its whole life costs. The power it uses over its life is a much larger part. Each slice of toast cooked in the invincible toaster probably took more energy to cook than in a cheap disposable one (thicker element wires take more energy to heat up). Even if it doesn’t at the start then you are locked into the efficiency of when the item was manufactured, missing out on the improvements of later innovations. For example a fridge made in 2005 is over 70% more efficient than one made in 1980. Much better to scrap and replace.

    Repairablilty hits the problem of labour costs. To pay someone to change the element of a toaster, even if it is really simple to do, you are looking at £50+. In a world where many people can’t even wire a plug DIY maintenance will only be for the few willing to do it.

    The best idea here, and the one I’d expect to have legs through future regulation following on from WEEE, is the recyclable one, the one the company refers to as The Realist. They see clearly. Also they don’t worry about shipping waste back to other countries. Smart people all round.

  2. You have to take a different approach with each product. There’s no reason why things like tools shouldn’t last forever – nobody is about to invent a radically new and improved hammer. I’ve often found that the older tools I’ve picked up from car boot sales are far higher quality than the new ones off the shelf, especially with garden tools.

    A mobile phone on the other hand, has got to be the third option or you lock yourself into obsolete technology very quickly.

    The second option is best suited to functional things that you don’t necessarily want to own, like fridges or washing machines. It’s only a matter of time before companies start leasing white goods instead of selling them. For the consumer, you always have the latest technology, and you don’t have to worry about maintenance or shelling out for a repair man when they break. For the business, each machine is an income stream rather than a one-off sale. To make the most of that, they need them to be as easy to repair as possible, and easy to break down at the end of their lifetime so that materials can be reused.

    As for the toasters, yes, the third option may work best for most people at the moment, but I’m sure you could make a robust and long lasting toaster that was still energy efficient. There are plenty on sale already, for those willing to pay a little more. You get what you pay for on those sorts of things.

        1. I’ve seen that article and it prompted me to do a bit of research into this topic and I don’t think that business model will be anything more than a small niche with customers doing it as a lifestyle statement.

          Renting rather than buying outright is almost always more expensive. So it is only sensible to rent if either the initial price is too large for you to stump up or you want someone else to manage the item. The high price of white goods relative to average pay was why Radio Rentals and its like prospered until the 1980s. In 1970 a washing machine would cost 8% of a annual average wage, but now that is 1.5% A months salary in one go is hard to afford, a weeks much less so. Companies often lease since the management and maintenance of electrical items is not their core competence and they want the supplier to bear the risk of breakdown. However for consumers those risks are much smaller. If I ran a laundrette and my washer broke down for a week I’d be losing money so I want to have the manufacturer to be contracted to fix or replace it PDQ; if my washing machine broke down at home I’d try and avoid doing any washing or go down to the laundrette for the week, a much smaller loss. Modern electrical items are very reliable, a Which survey in 2011 suggests on average washing machines take 6 years before breaking down. So I don’t see what consumer need renting would fulfil.

          You mentioned old tools are high quality. That is because they were made for craftsmen who paid for them out of their own money when they started and needed they to last a life time. My father had tools passed to him from his father he has now passed to me (those that he hasn’t passed on as exhibits to the steam museum he worked at). But modern tools you buy in B&Q are aimed at the hobbyist who isn’t going to hammer many nails so cheap tools are what he/she needs. Indeed given that the average time an electric drill is used in its life is 13 minutes it makes sense to rent one of those rather than a washing machine or toaster.

          1. Yes, and B&Q have been piloting rented drills.

            I think one of the biggest reasons why renting appliances will become more common is the rising price of materials. They’re not going to cost 1.5% of an annual salary forever. There’s also a move in business towards selling services rather than products. There are obvious advantages for businesses, and it’ll be up to those that want to pioneer it to sell it to us.

            And the joy of a free market economy, as you like to say, is that if you can find a market for it, you will succeed.

            1. There are two big ifs in this business case: If commodities prices rise far higher and longer than their long term trends AND if average wages rise far below their long term trend for a long time then domestic appliances may become so expensive that its worth hiring them. Two big ifs.

              I certainly wouldn’t invest my money in this but as we seem to agree, its the beauty of the market that it will solve this. Just don’t go mandating solutions, let teh market work.

  3. Sure, and this is a long term trend that is just getting underway. Leasing isn’t going to replace sales entirely, and where previous rental companies were aimed at those who couldn’t afford a washing machine, I imagine the first leasing offers will be aimed more at a John Lewis market. Cars are an obvious market to experiment with leasing too, given how quickly they depreciate.

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