Science & Environment

Should we be owning our washing machines?

Washing machine X-ray
Image caption Look inside a washing machine, and a great many resource expenditures are evident

Is the privately owned washing machine heading for the scrap heap of history?

It may sound absurd as more of us each year aspire to own a metal box that cleans their clothes.

But think-tanks looking to the future economy are suggesting that maybe we should not be buying our washing machines – we should be leasing them.

Here is the logic: Nick, the owner of my local launderette, reckons his washing machines are 40 years old and still going strong.

Domestic washing machines die much younger than Nick’s; more than a third don’t make it to the age of five.

For the think-tanks, this doesn’t make sense in a world hungry for resources.

The average washing machine contains about 40kg of steel and when a machine is scrapped, a proportion of the steel is lost to landfill. The exact figure is contested, but the loss is probably between 40% and 70%.

This profligacy exacts a big cost in energy and emissions, and it’s why Green Alliance and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are promoting the idea of leasing washing machines.

The lease model might have a number of advantages: manufacturers would be able to supply top-end machines most economical in energy and water; it would be in the makers’ interest to maximise longevity to minimise service bills; and it would create a supply-return loop so that old machines went back to makers to be re-furbished, updated or taken apart and cannibalised – and in the last resort melted down.

“Re-use is so much more efficient than recycling,” says Julie Hill, who is running the Green Alliance Circular Economy task force, backed by industry and government.

“We have to think of new models of business. We are not sure yet of the economics of leasing for the consumer but I could imagine that there will be many people already who are not happy at the prospect of buying a machine that gets thrown away and replaced three years later – with all the attendant hassle if it goes wrong and floods.”

The task force is sponsored by Defra. Ms Hill tells me that to make the changes in the economy needed to drive changes in our current way of doing things would require intervention by the Treasury, although she admits that persuading the Treasury to take notice of the idea has been an “uphill struggle”.

She says the government’s Landfill Tax has been an effective measure in encouraging recycling, and suggests that toxic chemicals might be a money-earner for the Treasury in future.

Get-out clause

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been peering into washing machines, too. It points out that a top-end washing machine will do 10,000 cycles – that's five times as much as a cheap machine.

Over the lifetime of the elite machine it will save 180kg of steel. The Foundation says more needs to be done by government to combat built-in obsolescence.

Image caption Those watching resources are steeling themselves for shortages and price hikes

The Foundation’s Jocelyn Bleriot told me: “We live in times when resources are getting tighter and resource prices and availability are becoming more volatile – so we need to safeguard our resources and keep them in circulation at the highest level.

"The 'take, make and dispose' model of society we have been living on is facing a lot of challenges at the moment, so it's important to build machines that are much more durable. But it’s also important to keep upgradeability in mind because we want to be able to capitalise on improved technology in future.”

A paper published by the Royal Society recently suggested manufacturers would need to use fewer materials overall in future and the resource issue is unquestionably enjoying one of its periodic peaks in popularity.

But with Japan claiming success in capturing methane clathrates, oil and gas technology becoming ever more inventive, and firms preparing to mine the sea bed for minerals, some point out that the Earth doesn't look ready to stop giving just yet.

The great limiting factor may be the atmosphere’s ability to absorb our CO2 without responding with a dangerously changed climate.

But political leaders at the moment seem more pre-occupied with what they can get out of the ground than what we are putting into the air.

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