blunt essays with sharp points

George Washington’s axe or Cuisinart’s coffeemaker?

by Scrvpvlvs
Sep 26, 2011 5:38 PM–Which is the better design?

We read in Plutarch’s Life of Theseus that the Athenians saved the ship which carried Theseus home from Crete. But over time, they replaced so many decayed timbers that philosophers began to argue that it was no longer Theseus’ ship. This paradox is still with us today in stories such as George Washington’s Axe, in which his axe handle has over time been replaced three times, and the head twice.

For today, let us not consider the paradox – I will simply say that it was still Theseus’ ship. Please consider the fact that things wear out. To that end, I wish to compare George Washington’s axe with Cuisinart’s $ 100 DGB-900 Burr Grind & Brew Thermal 12-Cup Automatic Coffeemaker.

Pour whole coffee beans and water into the top of this appliance and press a button, and it will dispense very fresh, tasty coffee into the carafe at the bottom. And it will go on doing this almost miraculous thing – transforming water into coffee – until parts of it wear out.

Now you might imagine that, like the owner of Washington’s axe, the owner of Cuisinart’s coffeemaker could replace a worn part and continue to operate the appliance.

Because, when a part of a device wears out, and the rest of its parts have many months or years of useful life, it is a waste to discard them. The raw materials, labor, and energy which went into making those parts are lost. The environmental impact of their manufacture was done in vain and cannot be undone. Furthermore, you probably paid good money for those things, so you labored in vain to get them.

The part in this case is the coffee channel cover: a small black plastic part that flips back for cleaning the coffee chute. It broke into two pieces at the point where you flex it in order to flip it back.

When I contacted Cuisinart to purchase the coffee channel cover, they replied:

We apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced. This is a part that is not available to purchase. Based on the information you have provided, your unit is out of warranty. If you have a proof of purchase that states you have had the unit for less than 3 years, please let us know. We will be able to provide you instructions on how to obtain a warranty replacement under that circumstance.

This coffeemaker is, quite simply, an environmentally irresponsible product. A few replacement parts are available, such as the bean hopper, coffee filter, and carafe. Otherwise, once it is out of warranty, the first worn-out part “bricks” the device. (For those unfamiliar with the verb, it means to render a small device useless, as in the sentence: I accidentally bricked my phone by dropping it in the pool.) The remaining valuable parts which might last for many more years, such as the reservoir, burr grinder, and stainless steel carafe, are wasted.

From first hand experience, I know that parts are available for any number of more modest devices. Parts can be had for a dual flush toilet conversion kit which originally cost $ 30. Axe handles are still for sale. Or consider the humble pencil. If the eraser wears out before the graphite does, this simple, inexpensive replacement part can be installed – and can be reused with a different pencil when the graphite does wear out. Here we have an example of an environmentally responsible design that takes into account the value of every part of the device.

Another example of environmentally responsible design which takes a different, but equally valid, approach is the engineering of certain automobiles so that every major part wears out at pretty much the same mileage. Again, the raw materials, labor, energy, and environmental impact of manufacture are not wasted, but fully used up.

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” This American proverb captures our cultural value of frugality, of avoiding waste. The next time you purchase a device, I encourage you to consider whether its design makes it possible to “use it up, wear it out”, or whether it would be more responsible to “do without”.

Please respond with your thoughts and ideas about how we can preserve frugality as a cultural value and how we can influence manufacturers such as Cuisinart to support frugality in the design of their products.

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by Anonymous Anonymous
December 30, 2015 6:55 PM–In the same vein, how about this? I have one of these smart 'phones that cost about as much as a decent used car. Recently, the little plug that is supposed to protect its battery-charging port fetched away. To my great surprise (not to mention my disgust), the Verizon store where I bought my 'phone was unable (they said) to install a new plug for me. What was I to do? Well, according to the store, I had to send the 'phone to a Samsung repair center that would perform the needed repair. How long would it take? "Only ten days." If Samsung cannot provide for effecting this simplest of repairs without depriving me of my 'phone for ten days, then the next time I am required by circumstances to get a new one, it will not be a Samsung.

Donn S. Miller  

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