Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it. –Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless
For a master’s degree in design at London’s Royal College of Art, Thomas Thwaites decided to make a toaster. From scratch. From raw materials, taken directly out of the Earth.
“I had made a chair, but I hadn’t really. I had just assembled bits of plywood,” Thwaites told a rapt crowd at the Aspen Environment Forum in Colorado this past weekend.
Inspired by one of his favorite books, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Thwaites set out to see if he could do better than the fictional Arthur Dent. Along the way, he learned a lot about consumption, electrical engineering, global supply chains, and the strength of his own will.
At Aspen, Thwaites told Marketplace journalist Scott Tong that he looked online for iron mines near London. He got a miner on the phone who invited him out the next day.
“There was a mix up with the miner, who had thought I was making a poster,” said Thwaites.
Although the miner was befuddled by the project, he eventually agreed to help, and Thwaites returned to the city with a suitcase full of raw iron ore (the weight broke the wheels).
To smelt the ore, Thwaites researched small-scale techniques from past centuries. His first attempts were unsuccessful, despite his use of a leafblower as a stand-in for an old-fashioned bellows. Eventually, Thwaites turned to household microwaves, after reading that industrial microwaves are sometimes used for heating ore.
“A couple of microwaves were harmed in the making of this toaster,” Thwaites quipped, cracking up the crowd. (His mom’s appliance was among them.)
Turning to BP and Kew Gardens
To make the plastic housing for his toaster, Thwaites called BP and asked them if he could go out to a rig to collect some crude from the source (he noted that this was before the Deepwater Horizon spill).
The company turned him down, so he looked for alternate sources of polymers.
Thwaites tried potato plastic, which he mixed and poured into a wooden mold. Snails kept eating it and he couldn’t get it quite right. So he asked, “Could I mine new rock from the rich seams of London streets?”
He picked up old toys and containers and melted them down.
His finished toaster body was rough and had a big hole in one side, but it fit the general shape.
Thwaites called Kew Gardens and asked them if he could tap their rubber trees to make some insulation, but they declined.
When he finished his toaster, he plugged it in. “It worked for a few seconds, but then the element melted itself,” Thwaites told Tong to more laughs. “It was quite scary, since there was no insulation on the wires.”
Thwaites added that heating elements are especially fragile, since they need to be made as evenly as possible to avoid weak spots (this is especially true in filament light bulbs).
Thwaites added up that he spent 1,187.54 British pounds ($1,791.61) on materials for the toaster, not counting any labor costs. To illustrate this, he placed his Frankenstein-looking creation on a shelf in a store next to standard models, and made his own price tag in the same font.
“This was probably the largest carbon footprint toaster because it was what I did for nine months,” Thwaites joked.
Still, Tong pointed out that Thwaites learned a lot along the way, including a rethinking of our consumer, throwaway society. Many of these reflections are shared in Thwaites’ book The Toaster Project.
“Stuff is nice, but we can’t carry on like this,” Thwaites told Tong.
In response to an audience question about rebooting an artisan and fix-it economy in the developed world, Thwaites said, “You’re much less likely to throw away something you made yourself.”
Thwaites gave the example of a toilet brush that his father had fixed some years before, but still uses. “An economist would say he would have been better off buying a new one and using the time he saved to do something more productive,” said Thwaites.
He added that in an ideal world, the price of every product would include “externalities” like the cost to recycle it, remediation of any environmental or social damage caused along the supply chain, and so on.
Next Up: Prosthetic Animals
Thwaites told National Geographic News his next project is a kind of “prosthetic animal” that uses mechanical processes to simulate the functions of a living body.
He said he is also working on a “home of the future.”
Thwaites said most of our current dwellings involve too much waste and excess. “Going back to live in the woods is an equally false future,” he said.
Brian Clark Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power