Kitchen appliances – they’re an everyday part of our lives, though we rarely give them conscious attention. Perhaps surprisingly our appliances, convenient wonders that they are, account for a “disproportionately large” amount of energy consumption in industrialised countries like Australia. Other potential ethical concerns include the environmental impacts of the materials used in construction phases, the possible use of conflict minerals, the accuracy of manufacturer’s sustainability claims, water use and the responsibility taken by the manufacturer for e-waste at the end of the product’s life.
Energy and Water Ratings
The most significant environmental impacts for major appliances are the use of energy and water while owned by the consumer. The good news is that overall appliances have become a lot more energy efficient and water efficient over the past decades – however, there are still large differences between the least and most efficient.
Most people know about the energy and water rating stickers on larger appliances, such as fridges as dish washing machines– the more stars, the more water or energy efficient the appliance is in use.
This is one area where you find worthwhile costs savings by doing right for the environment. Don’t just look at a product’s cost of purchase – you’ll own a fridge for 5-10 years. Buying an efficient model can more than offset a higher purchase price by reducing electricity use, and thus carbon emissions. There are schemes such as NILS available to assist very low-income earners gain access to credit for more expensive, sustainable whitegoods that will save money in the long run.
The Living Greener website has some useful information on energy and water ratings, as well as tips and information on determining the energy efficiency of items without star ratings. Sustainable Sources has some great advice and easy to understand information on what to look for when shopping for energy efficient appliances.
Check the manufacturer’s sustainability record
The manufacturer of your appliance plays a large role in determining just how sustainable your appliances are; from their manufacture, functionality and finally their disposal. There are a number of factors that determine how sustainable and ethical a manufacturer is – whether or not they take back their own e-waste, how they treat their workers, whether or not they have a clean energy program, and how transparent they are about their operations are just some of the things to consider. Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics rates electronics manufacturers on a number of these criteria, with the focus primarily on environmental impact.
Use of Conflict Minerals
So called “conflict minerals” – tin, gold, tungsten and tantalum sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo – are used in many consumer products including phones, jewellery and microwaves. Conflict minerals involve human rights abuses when they fund militia and military groups in the Congo. This is a significant risk with products made with gold, tungsten, tantalum and tin. Tungsten is the metal needed by a typical microwave.
To see how various electronics manufacturers and companies are making progress by reducing and eliminating their use of conflict minerals, check out the 2012 Company Rankings on Conflict Minerals from the Enough Project. Raise Hope For Congo also offers company rankings for many manufacturers. You can also check a manufacturer’s website to see whether or not they are signed up to the Conflict Free Smelter Program.
E-waste is not just another kind of rubbish. Problems with e-waste include the waste of potentially useful resources, toxic substances that can poison the environment, and issues with the way that this waste is dumped and recycled (often causing harm in developing countries). It is important for the sake of both the environment and affected communities that manufacturers have a responsible approach to e-waste. This video from the Story of Stuff is a great place to start:
Spotlight – Tips for common appliances
An energy efficient fridge can save you a lot of money, and is far friendlier on the environment, so be sure to check out their energy efficiency ratings.
The UK Good Shopping Guide scores the manufacturers of fridge and freezer brands for environmental friendliness, human rights, and animal welfare. While this is a way to see which companies are meeting the ethical requirements you consider most important, it doesn’t include all the brands available in Australia, and some of the brands it does cover are not available here. Unfortunately Australia’s Shop Ethical doesn’t (yet) cover major appliances.
First up – yes a dishwasher is almost always more energy efficient than hand dishwashing* – but to be sure you need to run it only when full, and don’t rinse the plates in advance, especially not in hot water. CHOICE suggests that most dishwashing machines wash well, and a good way to save water is not to rinse, just scrape off any food scraps. (Reproduced with permission from choice.com.au, January 17, 2014).
The most important things to consider when looking at a dishwasher are the water and energy efficiency ratings. Many brands offer appliances that sense the size of the load, so that extra water and energy are not wasted on half-loads of dishes.
Unfortunately with dishwashers, as opposed to other white goods, there is often a performance trade off with more water efficient models. According to CHOICE (subscription required) while there are some exceptions, good drying performance comes at the expense of higher energy use.
We haven’t had much luck finding up to date information about the social sustainability performance of dishwasher manufacturers. Of brands then available in the UK, in 2011 Ethical Consumer (subscription required) ranked Miele, then SMEG and Whirlpool ahead of lowly rated Beko, Bosch and Siemens. They didn’t include other commonly available brands in Australia like Westinghouse, Fisher and Paykal, LG and Samsung.
You can check a company’s website for their sustainability reports and where available any report on their social responsibility. It may be helpful to look at whether or not they meet the relevant international standards for their manufacturing plants, whether they are a part of any agreements regarding employee welfare and how they source their resources. Let us know if you find any useful information!
If you’re considering buying a microwave, the first question is, do you really need one? Microwaves can be more efficient than a conventional oven in cooking food – but just how efficient they are depends on the type of food and the size of the portion, and often the difference is negligible. A stovetop and convection oven can do the same things as a microwave, but a microwave can’t do everything an oven or stovetop can do. So depending on your lifestyle, consider whether it might be time to skip out on the extra appliance all together saving on materials and the energy used in manufacture.
If you have a microwave, make sure it’s turned off at the powerpoint when not in use. This is when it will do the majority of its power consumption. Keep it clean inside for greater energy efficiency.
If you’re disposing of an old microwave, make sure you send it to an electrical waste recycler rather than sending it to landfill – ewaste.com.au is a good option.
By Grace Boglev