Last weekend my brother-in-law and I came across Michael Sheafe and his vintage toasters in New York city. These are beautiful machines, many dating back to the early part of the 20th century. Mr. Sheafe has expertly restored these toasters to working order. (Check out his “Toaster Central” web site.) The straightforward design and small number of raw materials in each are impressive, and lend the toasters more readily to repair, unlike the common toasters of today.
For many products, at some point in time it became cheaper to throw away a broken unit and buy a new one, rather than have the old one repaired. But as has been alluded to before on this site and elsewhere, the accounting is incomplete. First, consider the cost of discarding a toaster. Let’s say it weighs 5 lbs., and your town pays $120/ton for garbage disposal. So tossing the toaster costs you about 30¢, and that’s a very indirect cost since one normally pays it through local taxes. But the other disposal-related costs such as the landfill space taken up or the harm from emissions that come from an incinerated toaster – are not likely to be accounted for. Then there is the new toaster, which will require a good amount of energy and raw materials for its production. And these items will have externalities of their own in similar forms of pollution and land degradation. Now multiply this by all of the disposable appliances, electronics, etc. that are out there.
One of the nice things about many of the vintage toasters is that because of their simple design and small number of materials, if they can no longer be repaired, they can be easily disassembled and recycled. They are cradle-to-cradle products, designed with the idea of never becoming waste.
It is important to understand why the model for many products changed from being built to last to being disposable. There are many reasons from lowered production costs (again without fully accounting for environmental impact) to ease of mass production to consumer preference. Understanding that transformation will help in bringing on the next one, hopefully to be guided by a principle expressed clearly in Cradle to Cradle: “Design with the understanding that waste does not exist.”
Thanks to Jeff Schock for the great photos! Here are a couple more…
Update: see part 2 for more on vintage versus modern toasters