the sustainable kettle

When our third electric kettle in as many years stopped working, I not only felt annoyed, but I felt guilty. What was I to do with this now redundant chunk of plastic? The only place for it was the bin.

Then I got to thinking about the broken kettle and how much it cost, the energy that was used to make it, the energy that was required to make it work and how much space it was about to take up in landfill. And then I realised we would go through all of this again in a couple of years when the next kettle broke. We needed something a little more sustainable, our next kettle needed to be one that would last for 10 years. Or more.

We set about looking for a stove kettle, just like Grandma had – complete with an old school whistle. It didn’t take long until we found this lovely shiny red Essteele kettle. We loved it immediately. It ticked all the boxes and even had a lifetime warranty.

So for some details; our perfect kettle has a nice thick base, along with a lovely thick glossy coat of paint and a rubber thingys on the handle so you don’t burn your hands when you pick it up. There were a few kettles we found that were much cheaper but a bit tinny and certainly not coming with a lifetime warranty. We paid $80 for our kettle, which didn’t seem much given an electric one cost about $60 and this $80 kettle was intended to be a one off purchase.

Pics below:

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3 Responses to the sustainable kettle

  1. Michael says:

    You are on the right track to be thinking about the “cradle to grave” or life-cycle impact of the products we buy and use, however it is very difficult to get the data to make a properly informed choice. While I have some sympathy for your view that buying a new electric kettle every year or so is terribly wasteful, can you really be sure that your new “old fashioned” one is necessarily better overall?

    Take the energy required to make (and transport) the kettle to your house:

    The energy that goes into making something is known as the “embedded energy”. For a plastic kettle this would include the energy that went into extracting the petroleum product from the ground, transforming it into “plastic”, moulding it into shape, manufacturing the heating element and other electrical components (which would include parts of copper/brass and probably stainless steel) then packaging it (probably in a cardboard box and a plastic bag).

    Your “old fashioned” kettle (given your description of it as “heavy” and the pictures you posted) is probably enamelled cast iron or steel. Again the raw material (iron ore) would have been mined, the base metal extracted from the ore (a very energy intensive process – blast furnaces etc) and turned into iron or steel which would then have been turned into the kettle using various processes involving heat and pressure. The enamel finish would be applied (more embedded energy here) and again it would be packaged.

    Given that an iron/steel kettle is probably heavier than a plastic one, the energy involved in transporting it to the shop is probably greater than for the plastic one and you would have used slightly more energy getting it home (did you drive, cycle walk?).

    Then consider the energy consumption in use. Arguably burning natural gas in your home is probably a more efficient way of generating heat than burning brown coal in the Latrobe valley, converting that into electricity, conveying that electricity to Melbourne (losses in the wires) and converting that electricity back into heat in the element of an electric kettle….however…the gas flame on your stove does not heat the water directly, it only heats the kettle. Indeed the whole body of the kettle has to reach quite a high temperature in order to boil the water within it, and it will continue to radiate heat long after you have turned off the gas. In winter this is a useful addition to the heat inside your home and possibly allows you to turn down the house heating slightly, but in summer this heat is truly “wasted”. By contrast the element in the electric kettle heats the water directly, while the plastic body (which is an insulator) only gets moderately warm.

    So it could be than even if your “old fashioned” kettle lasts 20 or 30 years, it’s possible that its embedded energy plus the “waste” energy from the way it heats water, is overall more energy intensive than buying an electric kettle every couple of years. And perhaps you gas bill will commensurately high than your electrcity bill over the same period, becasue you are also heating the house (whether you want to or not) when you boil the kettle on the stove.

    Now I haven’t gone into all this to ridicule your choice of a stove-top kettle over an electric one or to claim superiority for a “disposable” electric one, Rather it is to highlight how difficult is it to make a properly informed choice.

    As an engineer (with one foot in Marketing) I worry about this stuff all the time. The reality it is very very difficult to get reliable information on the true energy/environmental cost of each stage of the process and therefore to make informed choices. And our intuition is frequently wrong.

    Some years ago I saw a well researched paper (sadly I do not have copy) looking at the environmental impact of disposable cups. Obviously the intuitive answer is not to use them at all – although again you need to look at the energy cost of making then constantly washing a china mug against a “lifetime” of disposable cups. In any case the study showed that, against popular opinion, a Styrofoam cup was actually the better choice as there was more petroleum product in the wax coating of a paper cup than there was in the Styrofoam one. Sadly I can’t recall whether the full lifecycle/disposal energy cost was considered as well, but it serves to illustrate my point. And don’t get me started on bottled water….

    So what to do? Damned if I know, but at least the fact that people are thinking about these issues more broadly may help provide the impetus to find “proper” answers.

    Cheers, M

    • mcMissy says:

      Whoa! Micheal… i love your work. As I was reading through your comments I decided you must have some sort of engineering background… and I was right! I figured this as I have had many a rigorous debate with my mining engineer cousins about everything from the viability of solar panels to what my hair clips were made of.

      I think your right in the fact that sometimes what we intuitively think is right can sometimes be so wrong. But there is still the question of landfill and what happens to the damn junk once we dispose of it in our plastic wheely bins. I’d be interested to here your thoughts on how we would deal with all of the redundant materials if in fact we decided disposable items where more environmentally economical to produce and therefor make them the product of choice for the masses.

  2. Michael says:

    Yes disposal or (ideally) recycling should all be part of it too. Again my intuitive sense is that recycling used materials (even if energy intensive) would have to be better overall than burying them and also should save energy by reducing the volume of virgin materials (crude oil, iron ore etc) that need to be extracted & processed to meet our needs. [There’s another thread to follow about reducing the scope and scale of our “needs”] The fact that there are myriad recycling programmes around now for everything from glass, paper and cardboard through to old batteries, computer & home entertainment equipment and mobile phones shows that community expectations have shifted and there has been a greater realisation that there is no “away” (as in “throw it away”).

    Before recycling comes re-use which should be even more energy efficient – but that’s yet another whole discussion.

    cheers

    M

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