March 1, 2010
The Cost of Convenience
In a heroic effort to source and fabricate each part of an everyday appliance himself, Thomas Thwaites produces the world’s most expensive toaster.
What did you have for breakfast today? Eggs, cereal, toast? Ever wonder where that toast came from? Bread, obviously, but what about the toaster? Where did it come from, and how much did you pay for it? You, a reader of Metropolis, might have paid more for one of polished chrome, with four slots that let you choose which slice is getting toasted, or with the retro look of a Dualit. Mine was about $60, with two slots, chrome, an adjustable toasting mechanism, a defrost option, and a cancel button. The 29-year-old design student Thomas Thwaites bought his for about four pounds from Argos, a cheap British catalog store. Clad in white plastic, the toaster has all the same features as mine (minus a crumb tray). Thwaites then proceeded to take his apart and remake it. From scratch.
It was all to make a point. We’re living in the era of the liberal who eats only what he grows; or eats nothing grown farther than 100 miles from his home; or gives up toilet paper, electricity, and all other modern conveniences. Last year, Thwaites did something similar for his M.A. degree show at the Royal College of Art, in London. He set out to make his own toaster, curious about where things come from, about “the grand scale processes that are hidden in mundane everyday objects as well as the economies of modern scale in modern industry,” as he writes in the accompanying self-published book. He also happens to like toast and be a fan of Douglas Adams. One line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy stuck in Thwaites’s mind: “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.”
What Thwaites offers up is almost a philosophy of toast: we don’t need toast; it’s just a nice thing. (Though one could argue it’s a necessity for the British. They celebrate marmalade, and like their eggs, mushrooms, melted cheese—even beans—“on toast.”) Toast via toasters is one of those things that have become entitlements in the developed world. (Toast is a pain to make in an oven under the broiler, and over an open fire it isn’t really practical. I tried to live without a toaster for a couple years, until my British husband prevailed.) As Thwaites writes, “In terms of toasters if everyone else has [one] and I don’t, well I’ll feel a bit hard done by, and go buy a toaster if I can afford it. The fact that wealth is relative is I think, one thing that drives the economy. It’s not that people have ‘infinite wants’ just that no one wants to be at the poor end of the scale.”
The toaster sums up our age, our way of consuming not simply bread but products—often cheap, generally thrown out, and barely noticed. One could even call the last 100 years the Toast Century. The first electric toaster was created in 1909 by the Edison General Electric Company, the same year that AEG introduced the electric kettle. Both companies were power suppliers, and their products were designed to drive demand. Together they ushered in an age of products made to anticipate and develop needs, of planned obsolescence. Of toasters. “Like no other object [the toaster] seems to me to encapsulate something of the essence of the modern age,” Thwaites writes. “Close up a desire (for toast) and the fulfilment of that desire is totally reasonable. Perhaps the majority of human activity can be reduced to the pursuit of additional modicums of comfort like an evenly crispy piece of toast. The toaster is a symbol for the stuff that is perhaps unnecessary but then again is quite nice to have, [stuff] we wouldn’t really miss but is so relatively cheap that we might as well have one and throw it away when it breaks or gets dirty or looks old.”
A recent graduate of the Design Interactions program at the Royal College of Art, Thwaites has a background in microeconomics and artificial intelligence. His undergraduate dissertation was called “Greening the Yuppie: Micro-economic Rational Choice Theory and Environmental Consumerism.” Hardly your typical design student, then. His M.A. project quotes Marx and Adam Smith but is also sympathetic to the Toast Century. He doesn’t advocate that we all make our own toasters—or give up toast—but in the process of making his, he managed to create the world’s most expensive toaster, costing about $1,900, not counting his own labor.
Exactly what building your own product means is problematic when it comes to something as technologically sophisticated as a cheap toaster. Thwaites made rules for himself: he had to make a toaster like one you can buy—electric, two slices, pop-up, and with variable browning. For him, starting from scratch didn’t mean setting out in the woods with only some rocks and sticks but, rather, using tools that didn’t require specialized knowledge—basically, those available before the industrial revolution. “I’m making an object that is usually produced in huge numbers in huge factories,” he wrote, “a domestic object made on a domestic scale.” His process takes us not only on a quest to understand where things come from and what those things represent but also through the history of metallurgy and on a picturesque tour of the U.K.
He started by taking apart his Argos toaster. It had 404 parts, including the 42 individual copper wires entwined to make the power cord, and 17 or so different metals and alloys. He was practical (in a sense) and reduced his materials to five: steel, plastic, copper, nickel, and mica. The search for some of these had him visiting abandoned mines that had been shuttered or turned into visitors’ centers because they were no longer economically feasible. At one, he got iron ore from a display case; unable to find another mine, he got lost in the remote hills of Scotland while looking for outcroppings of mica. He collected copper from puddles in Wales and extracted it via electrolysis.
He researched how to smelt using a 15th-century treatise—that’s just about the level of technology a layman making iron today can muster—but ended up smelting ore in a microwave, breaking his own rules on his first raw material. He’d tried making a foundry with a concrete chimney discovered in his mom’s garden, a trash can, and a leaf blower, but it didn’t work. He made something akin to iron but melted the thermometer and shattered the “iron” itself when he tried to hammer it into shape. Thwaites went through three microwaves and consulted the chair of mineral processing at the Royal School of Mines to get enough iron for his toaster.
When it came to the plastic, he pondered using a pressure cooker to create polypropylene. It takes 200 pounds per square inch and 100 degrees Celsius to make—plus a catalyst, like hydrogen peroxide. Lucky for him, his neighbors, and Britain’s security services, Thwaites nixed that idea. Most pressure cookers only go to 15 p.s.i., and to get his to work, Thwaites would have basically been making a bomb. He would have had to block the safety valve, and somehow that—plus highly inflammable liquid, plus peroxide—seemed a very bad idea. Not to mention the fact that BP wouldn’t let him nip out to the North Sea for a jug of crude oil. For a tanker, yes, they said, but not a jug, not on a helicopter. Instead, he tried making plastic from potatoes cooked up on the stove (the mixture apparently had the consistency of snot). Spread in a mold Thwaites had carved from a tree stump, the material cracked. So he bent his rules again and decided to get old plastic from a dump (he likens it to mining in this, our plastics age) and melted it down. He visited Axion Recycling, a company that takes old plastic and turns it into raw plastic for new things, for advice on melting and reuse.
By the time he got to nickel, he had only two weeks until his degree show, and he broke not only his rules but the law. The only nickel mine in the U.K. had a chain across it in the one picture he found online. He wasn’t about to go to Norilsk Siberia, which is not only the world’s largest nickel deposit but also on a top-ten list of most polluted places; no outsiders are allowed in. Driving to the environmentally friendly mine in Finland would have taken five days. One option was left—eBay. Thwaites bought 11 commemorative Canadian coins issued for the millennium. They were 99.9 percent nickel, and using them broke Canadian law, which prohibits tampering with currency.
In the end, Thwaites’s toaster had 23 parts. There was no timer and no spring, but it had a crumb tray, and what he actually managed to produce with his five materials was ghostly, haunting, and beautiful—a kind of Frankentoaster. He was terrified to use it. The copper power cord was exposed, with no insulating rubber around the conductive metal. Finally, at a design conference last summer at the V2_Institute, in Rotterdam, he worked up the courage to try making a piece of toast. He spent two days grounding his device and wore rubber-soled sneakers at his presentation, reminding himself to stand on his right foot and use his right hand when toasting so he wouldn’t electrocute himself. Or anyone else. In that, at least, he succeeded. The audience was safe. The element glowed red but then melted after a few seconds. The world’s most expensive toaster, the only handmade electric toaster, didn’t actually work. But that’s of little consequence, because it still made its point.
Thwaites designed a toaster not to enjoy warm, crisped bread but rather to comment on waste, production processes, cheap products that never represent their true costs—and to point out that companies aren’t particularly interested in solving those issues. Thwaites’s plastic adviser, Axion Recycling, exists because of WEEE—not some kids’ toy but a piece of European Union legislation, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. Approved in 2003, it requires companies to break down and recycle their castoffs. Its passing heralded the promise of a brave new world in which companies would be responsible for the afterlives of their products. They’d design things differently—fewer parts but more of them interchangeable and easy to break down. It would transform design. “The invisible hand of the market would lead to products that were easier to recycle,” Thwaites remembers thinking.
It didn’t turn out like that. Companies only have to purchase a certificate from a business like Axion proving that they purchased the same amount of recycled material by weight as they’d sold. To recycle a product in the age of WEEE, it is first crushed, with bits like copper and steel extracted, and then sent to Axion for plastic retrieval. But the problem is, Thwaites notes wryly, “There are quite a lot of parts in even something as simple as a toaster.” Extracting them in a pure form is difficult, and there are limits to just how often something can be recycled. Metal, plastic, paper, or cardboard can only can be reused once or twice before it’s got too many impurities. Thwaites knows that toasters are artificially cheap, but no one (not even he) wants to pay more. “Part of the solution is making sure the toasters we buy last longer, and we invest as much ingenuity and money into taking them apart as we do putting them together,” he says.
Toward that end, there’s a new sliver of hope. It won’t affect the producers of cheap toasters the world over, but at Davos this January, the World Economic Forum floated an idea to help people track their environmental impact by “introducing a global system of identifying the carbon and water footprints of products and their packaging,” according to the New York Times. The question is, how much impact will this knowledge really have? Only those already concerned with their carbon footprint are likely to pay any attention. The sole thing to alter driving patterns and SUV use was four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline in 2008. We don’t make changes without financial incentives. As Thwaites says, real change will come from taxing both landfills and carbon dioxide—as well as from consumer information. Until then, keep your toaster. If your printer breaks, fix it. Our world creates a conundrum: things are cheaper to buy than to repair or care for. Maybe we should just throw up our hands in frustration and scream, “WEEE!”
Read more about this story on the March Reference page.