Progress Towards Sustainable Design in the White Goods Sector

Edwin Datschefski, Greener by Design

This paper was written for the Toward Sustainable Product Design IV Conference held in Brussels in 1999, and was subsequently published in the Journal of Sustainable Design.


This paper is in two parts, the first covering manufacturers' progress to date and the second part looking to the future and what improvements would lead to sustainable white goods. Much of the progress to date has been driven by energy- and eco-labelling, and consequently this paper is informed by the US, Nordic, German and EU labelling criteria, as well as data from manufacturers. The future improvements section is derived from a "biothinking" approach to sustainability -- making products cyclic, solar, safe and efficient.


Core White Goods Characteristics

There are a number of environmental aspects that are common to all white goods, such as the manufacture of the white metal cabinet, the degree of repairability and durability, recovery at end of use, packaging, consumer education and noise in operation.

Cabinet Manufacture

Most white goods are made of steel with a surface coating, and impacts arise from the toxicity of coatings and the solvents released during the process. The philosophy of the EU label has been to focus on the much larger impacts that occur during the use phase of white goods, but nonetheless these impacts are significant in absolute terms. Only the Nordic ecolabel specifically addresses surface coating, stating that, “Paints must not contain pigment or additives based on lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury or their compounds. The paints must not contain more than 5 percent by weight of organic solvents.” This is a trend reflected in other industries, such as the auto sector where Volvo has been using water-based metal painting systems.

Metal plating processes cause widespread release of heavy metals to watercourses, and unnecessary plating should be avoided completely. The Nordic ecolabel is specific that, “Metals must not be plated with cadmium, chromium, nickel or their compounds. In exceptional cases, small parts such as screws and hinges may be plated with chromium, nickel or their compounds.” In the case of washing machines, the washing drum can be chromed if it can be shown that the drum can be recovered at end of life.

The Nordic ecolabel also reflects Scandinavia's more advanced views on toxicity, stating that, “Plastic materials must not contain substances based on cadmium, lead, mercury or their compounds, chlorinated/bromated paraffins or bromated diphenyl esters. ” The Blue Angel criteria for fridges also bans the use of cadmium and lead additives in plastic parts, but pragmatically allows up to 75ppm of such additives to be present (but presumably not added during manufacture) if recycled plastics are used.


Despite the fact that most household appliances have become steadily more reliable, washing machines and washer-driers still top the poll of the least reliable pieces of equipment, according to a Consumers' Association survey of 15,000 Which? readers. For washing machines, the most reliable brands were found to be AEG, Ariston, Candy, Indesit, Miele, Tricity Bendix, and Zanussi. The least reliable were Hoover and Hotpoint.

Appliance Recovery

Every year, 100,000 tonnes of white goods are discarded in the UK, and recycling is patchy. For refrigerators, the freon is extracted from old machines local authorities and by retailers when they supply new machines. However, the potential for recycling white goods is there -- by weight, the typical appliance consists of approximately 75% steel.

To aid in recycling, plastic parts should be labelled, and both the EU, Nordic and Blue Angel schemes require this for plastic parts weighing more than 50g. Markings are permanent (usually embossed) and follow the usual material abbreviations: 1. PET, 2. HDPE, 3. PVC, 4. LDPE, 5. PP, 6. PS, and 7. all other plastics (which should themselves to conform to ISO1043).

The Nordic label requires that a “plan shall be drawn up describing a method and estimating the costs of disposing of the dishwashers at the end of their service life. The estimate shall be made in current monetary values and shall be based on present price information for dismantling, shredding, disposal and sale of usable parts, or whatever else the handling may comprise. When selling a Swan-labelled dishwasher, the licence holder shall offer the facility of returning the dishwasher to the dealer at the end of its service life, possibly against payment of a fee. The objective is that the dishwasher shall be recovered.” This sort of approach has not taken off yet, but interest in such deposits is increasing, with a Disposal and Re-use of White Goods Bill being proposed in the UK in 1998. The Bill proposed that white goods retailers should levy a 'green' deposit (10% of the purchase price) on all appliances sold. Purchasers would be issued with a 'log book'. If the machine is sold on by the original purchaser, the 'log book' would go with it. The deposit could eventually be 'cashed in' if the machine was responsibly disposed of at the end of its life; either to a local authority for scrap or to a community organisation for parts recovery.

Miele was the first white goods manufacturer to introduce an appliance recycling system in Germany in June 1994. The reusable material provided by a product mix of Miele washing machines, tumble dryers, electric ovens and dishwashers is between 82% and 85% in terms of weight. These valuable materials are then recycled. This network is available to specialist dealers, the specialist trade and local communities.

Some local authorities offer an appliance pick up service, such as the one in Chicago which reclaims freon, takes usable parts to make other, and separates various metals for recycling. The shell of the appliance is then taken to a shredding facility and recycled to make other steel products. This scheme was created because in 1994, the Illinois general assembly placed a ban on the disposal of white goods into landfills in Illinois.  


While also a minor impact in the overall lifetime of an appliance, the wholesale and retail packaging is being improved. For example, the US Green Seals for both fridges and washing machines state that:

    “Packaging shall not contain inks, dyes, pigments, stabilisers, or any other additives to which any lead, cadmium, mercury, or hexavalent chromium has been intentionally introduced. ”

    “The sum of the concentration levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, and hexavalent chromium present in any package or packaging components shall not exceed 100 parts per million by weight. ”

    “The product package shall have a minimum post-consumer content of 25%.”

Consumer Education

The Nordic Ecolabel criteria for washing machines quote some studies which have shown that users normally fill machines inadequately, usually with 2 to 3 kg of cotton laundry, instead of the optimal 5kg. At such part loads, the machines consume more electricity and water per kg of laundry. Most machines now have a half load setting to help address this tendency. Some more expensive machines have weighing scales built in and a logic chip which allows water and possibly detergent levels to be matched exactly to the load with minimal user input. Such approaches are likely to be much more effective than requiring calculations on the part of the user.

Consumers can reduce energy usage dramatically by washing at cooler temperatures, something which is not always made abundantly clear in user manuals. For example, washing at 30°C or room temperature can save up to 80% of energy -- a huge improvement and as all machines have a temperature dial this is within the control of the consumer. The corresponding control available for water usage, via the economy or half loading buttons, does not offer such dramatic savings.

All the ecolabels require clear information to be presented to consumers, usually in the form of manuals, on how to minimise environmental impact. For example:

    “If the water in your home is heated by an environmentally approved wood burner, or boiler fired with wood chips or pellets, by a heat pump which takes heat from the air, the ground, rock or the sun, or by taking solar heat directly during most of the year, the dishwasher should preferably be connected to the hot water system. This usually also applies if your home is connected to the district heating system.” (Nordic Dishwasher Label)

    “Advice to use a full load whenever possible ... with clear examples of (a) typical maximum load(s) must be included, advice on varying the detergent dose according to water hardness, load size and the degree of soiling, information about the energy consumption and the water consumption of the machine for different temperature settings and for different load settings.” (EU Washing Machine Label).

    “Information about the washing machine being made of parts and materials which are reusable and/or recyclable, advice that when disposing of the washing machine the consumer should enquire about, and follow the applicable water-management routes.” (EU Washing Machine Label).


Control of noise is useful in domestic settings. Several labels have noise standards:

Label Standard

Maximum Noise Level dB(A)

Nordic Dishwasher


Nordic Fridge


EU Fridge


Nordic Washing Machine

72 during spinning, 60 otherwise

These standards are highly achievable, and one (unlabelled) Swedish washing machine, the ASKO 20605, washes at a noise level of only 52 dB(A), which is comparable to a whisper.

Washing Clothes

Taking our white box and adding heat, water and motion we get a washing machine.

The washing of clothes is achieved by adding a optimum amount of water and then applying time, heat, motion and detergent. Different countries have adopted different mixes of these components in their machines, but all achieve the same result:

Country Approach





40 minutes




100 minutes




8 hours

Room Temp.


US machines have more agitation and consequently wear out clothes more quickly, making this approach less desirable environmentally, although giving a benefit of quicker washing.

In Italy, washes can be much longer as machines are designed to exploit special electricity meters that limit electricity use to an agreed maximum load. If this load is set at 3.3 kW, then householders pay at the "social tariff", which is about 40% cheaper than standard rates. As the standard rate is the second most expensive in Europe (after Belgium), this provides an extra incentive for low energy appliances

The biggest difference is made by running machines at lower temperatures and with optimal loads.


The difference between energy consumption in the worst and best machines is about 1:2. If all machines in the Nordic countries complied with the ecolabel, about 0.7 TWh of washing and drying electricity would be saved per year.

The EU ecolabel  requires the use of less than or equal to 0,23 kWh of electrical energy per kg of washload in a standard 60° C cotton cycle. Such machines will thus qualify for energy efficiency classes A and B.

The US Green Seal label uses and energy factor calculation based on volume, rather than mass of washload, making transatlantic comparison tricky. The Green Seal Class A Certification Level requires that the product shall have an energy factor greater than 2.5 ft3/(kWh/cycle). The average European drum size is 1.65 ft3, so this means that the AEG 86720 (an EU A rated machine) which uses 0.89 kWh per load would have an energy factor of 1.85 ft3/(kWh/cycle), so not qualifying for a Green Seal A level certification.

US machines have traditionally been top-loading, vertical-axis machines that are energy and water guzzlers. However, since the advent of the Green Seal label, and the fact that water and electric companies now offer rebates for buyers of efficient machines,  a new breed of front-loading machines has emerged. These horizontal axis machines are quite large (about 8kg load) and when calculated per loading, are more energy efficient than EU machines and often comply with the EU water use threshold. Several brands, such as Frigidaire, Gibson and General Electric have a better energy factor than leading EU brands such as Asko, Miele and Creda.

The average new US vertical-axis machine is 2.72 ft3, and uses 2.22 kWh per cycle, an energy factor of 1.23 or equivalent to approximately 1.35 kWh / kg  -- a poor rating but it is still possible to buy EU front loaders that use that much energy.

The Nordic Swan label has a broader approach to energy calculations. Instead of the usual 60°C 5kg load used by the EU, the Nordic Energy performance is aggregated from tests at cotton 60°C full load and 2kg, and non-iron 40°C at full load and 1 kg load. These four modes are then averaged as follows:

            E <= 0.35 kWh/kg where E= (e1+e2+e3+e4)/(m1+m2+m3+m4)

For example, the 1992 AEG 610 would get a score of E=(1.1+0.75+0.8+0.4)/ (5+2+5+1) = 0.23, and so would easily qualify, whereas its cotton 60°C full load usage of 1.1 kWh would be 0.22 kWh/kg, only just making the EU Label requirement of 0.23 kWh/kg.  This would seem to imply that the Nordic Swan is a little less stringent than the EU label.

The only machine to hold the Nordic label are the Miele W 986, WS 5425, and WS 5426, and the only machines to hold the EU label are the Edy / Nordland range and the Hoover New Wave. However, there are several others on the market that qualify for the criteria, but have not applied for the label.


The EU label says that a machine must use less than or equal to 15 litres of water per kg of washload. The Green Seal Class A Certification Level requires that maximum per cycle water use shall be no greater than 11.0 gal/ft3/cycle.

The Nordic Swan takes its aggregate approach again:

            W <= 32 l/kg where W=(w1+w2+w3+w4)/(m1+m2+m3+m4)

Here the 1992 AEG 610 would get a score of W=(83+76+83+44)/ (5+2+5+1)=22, qualifying easily, whereas under the EU label it would score 16.6 kg/l, not quite the required 15 l/kg.


The impact of detergents is due not only to the ingredients and chemicals present in the formulations but also to the sheer volume of the quantities used -- over 3.5 million tonnes per year of heavy and low duty detergents were used within the E.U. during 1992.  Excess detergent use increases the environmental loading of the wastewater, and until the early 90s, most machines lost quite a lot of detergent out of the bottom before it could be used for washing. Consequently, the EU label requires that the machine must lose less than or equal to 5% of detergent.

For example, the AEG OKO valve closes off the wash tub from the drainage system during all wash programmes. This not only reinforces the cleaning effect but also saves detergent, requiring 20% less than a machine without a locking device.

The type of washing powder employed can make a big difference, with three main types being available: “Standard”, “Improved” by means of meeting the EU Ecolabel (currently only Down to Earth Brand) and “Organic” brands such as Ecover and Bio-D. The best form of detergent is reckoned by the Environmental Detergent Manufacturer's Association to be the concentrated powders, which have optimal packaging and about a quarter of the surfactants found in equivalent liquid detergents. Concentrated powders are also more likely to meet packaging goals, such as the EU ecolabel requirement for the sum for the primary packaging, of total packaging and virgin material to not exceed 9 g/wash.

If possible, “Building your Own” with a modular system (using various components to construct your own washing powder) is the best method, according to the Öko-Institut Freiburg.

Machine Comparisons

Here some machines are compared on water and electricity:


Water  litres / kg

Electricity kWh / kg

Creda 17088 Cascade Eco Wash



Hoover Quattro AE160



Edy / Nordland (Frenko)



AEG OKO_Lavamat 610



AEG OKO_Lavamat 86720



Frigidaire FWT445GE (Estimated)



EU Ecolabel Criteria




Taking our white box and adding insulation, a compressor and a refrigerant, we get a refrigerator.

Home refrigerators are a significant user of world electricity; hundreds of millions are currently in use, and 58 million new units are manufactured worldwide each year. The main environmental impacts result from the use of electrical energy and the use and possible emission of refrigerants and foaming agents that could deplete the ozone layer and contribute to global warming.


The difference in energy consumption between the best and worst machines on the market is in the ratio of about 1:3. Improvements have been steady -- in the US, new compressor technology which was introduced during the 1980s helped reduce annual refrigerator energy use from 1500 kilowatt hours (kWh) to 900 kWh per year in 1990. Between 1980 and 1990, according to DOE, the energy-efficient refrigerator compressors saved U.S. consumers $6 billion in energy costs.

Now new standards continue to drive efficiency, although gains are beginning to take off:


Energy Use Per Year in kWh

(V = cabinet volume)

Green Seal 1993

0.48 V  + 299

Green Seal 2001

0.31 V  + 248.4

Nordic Swan Fridge Freezer

0.36 V  + 230

Nordic Swan Larder Fridge

0.24 V  + 130

For example, the Vest frost SKF375  has a capacity of 296l and uses 0.88 kWh a day or 321.2kWh per year. The Nordic label would require annual energy use of (296*0.36)+230 = 336.56, and the Vestfrost would qualify. The Green Seal goal would be (296*0.31)+248.4 = 340.16, and so it meets that, too. The Vestfrost has the  EU ecolabel, which requires that the appliance must qualify for either energy class 'A' or 'B' as defined in Directive 94/2/EC, Annex V.

The Bosch KKI3301GB  Fridge/freezer is 300 litres and uses 412 kWh per year, and so would not qualify for Nordic or Green Seal. The Bosch KDR3701 Larder Fridge

at 363 l and 135 kWh per year would meet those goals.

Users do not make as big a difference as they do for washing machines, but there are various guidelines that are worth following:

    The door or lid should not be opened more often than needed and no longer than necessary, especially with regard to upright freezers;

    Hot foodstuffs should be allowed to cool down before placing in the appliance, as the steam from the foodstuffs contributes to the icing up of the evaporator unit;

    The evaporator unit should be kept clean from thick layers of ice and that frequent defrosting facilitates the removal of the ice cover;

    The radiator on the back of the appliance and the space underneath the appliance should be kept clean from dust or kitchen smoke;


Back in 1991, I organised a seminar on refrigerators and the environment. The large chemical firms such as ICI and Rhone Poulenc were speaking, as were some fridge manufacturers. They we all totally committed to replacing CFCs with HFCs such as R134a, a compound with a global warming potential three thousand times greater than CO2. When a professor from South Bank University came to give his talk on using propane/butane instead, people literally laughed at him and said it was unfeasible and dangerous.

Yet within two or three years, the greenfreeze revolution took off, led by Greenpeace and the small German manufacturer DKK Scharfenstein, and now all manufacturers use hydrocarbon refrigerants, finding that they are efficient, have no ozone depletion potential and very low global warming potential. The explosion risk is negligible -- a fridge contains as much propane as a cigarette lighter does. 

The propane/butane mix of refrigerant is effectively required in order to meet the EU ecolabel, as it states, “the refrigerants in the refrigerating circuit and foaming agents used for the insulation of the appliance shall have an ozone depletion potential equal to zero, and shall have a global warming potential equal to, or lower than, 15 (rated as CO2 equivalents over a period of 100 years).”

The Green Seal Class A Certification also disallows HFCs by stating that, “products shall not contain any chemicals that are ozone-depleting or have significant global-warming potential”.

The Danish firm Vestfrost is the first company in the European Union to be awarded an eco-label for refrigerators, and is one of the world's largest producers of refrigerators and freezers, with a turnover of DKK 1.4 billion. It introduced its first greenfreeze model in 1993 and the following year found they had a production increase of 39 per cent to 725,000 units over the previous financial year.


The Four Design Requirements for Sustainable Products

The "biothinking" model shows how technologies can become fully compatible with nature. The first three mimick the protocols used by plant and animal ecosystems:

Cyclic              The product is made from organic materials, and is recyclable or compostable, or is made from minerals that are continuously cycled in a closed loop.

Solar               The product uses solar energy or other forms of renewable energy, both during use and manufacture.

Safe                 The product is non-toxic in use and disposal, and its manufacture does not involve toxic releases or the disruption of ecosystems.

The fourth requirement is based on the need to maximise the utility of resources in a finite world:

Efficient          The product in manufacture and use requires 90% less materials, energy and water than products providing equivalent utility did in 1990.

For a given product, it is possible to score each of these requirements out of 100, and this information can be expressed in a simple logo, for example:

Score for Frenko Washing Machine

Potential innovations that would move white goods towards true sustainability can be identified by considering each of the four requirements in turn:


1. Appliances can become 100% recyclable, from their current level of 70 to 85%. This would mean paying attention to metal paints and finishes, and perhaps opting for an unpainted box of brushed recycled stainless steel or recycled aluminium. The paints could be more cyclic in their manufacture and application, such as the vegetable-derived water based paints from companies like Auro and Holzweg. An improvement on this would be to have more re-use, becoming more like a refurbishment process, as exemplified by Xerox in their photocopier remanufacturing process. In this case, elements like motors and drums and refrigerants would be refurbished to meet their original quality specifications, and built into new appliances. Steps are already being made towards this by Miele, who take back machines, and also in Japan -- Sharp Corp and Mitsubishi Materials Corp announced in August 1999 that they would set up a joint venture in October in Osaka to recycle Sharp-made electric home appliances, including TV sets, refrigerators, washing machines and air-conditioners. The plant will start operation in April 2001 with an initial recycling capacity of 360,000 units a year.

2. Washing machines and dishwashers can be engineered to play more of role in the water cycle. Given the use of a suitable detergent and a filtering system, effluent can be made good enough quality to flush toilets or be applied to gardens. The compounds removed from clothing (blood, sweat, food stains, etc. ) are usually suitable for composting and could be treated in a bio-system such as a reed bed or mussel tank. Such a system could be engineered to look like a domestic appliance or could be centralised within a housing area.


3.  Where renewable energy is available for hot water heating, as in Iceland or Sweden, then any of today's washing machines hooked up as hot fill will become 80% solar. Adding renewable electricity, such as that supplied by a Green Tariff or the householder's own wind or PV supplies, would make the washing machine 100% solar, as would hooking up a refrigerator to such a connection.

4.  Solar manufacture would tackle the 5% or so of lifetime energy that is not covered in the use phase. This would require hooking up the steelworks and assembly plant to a renewable source. In the case of the aluminium mentioned above, the remelting process is already likely to be powered by renewable Icelandic or Norwegian electricity.

5.  If a washing machine is set up as hot fill, or cold water washing is being used, then the agitation process is all that remains -- a very light energy requirement which could in theory be met by a “secondary renewable” source such as muscle power, perhaps via a pedal / exercise bicycle system.


6.  Much of the water impacts are from the detergent, so eliminating detergent would be good for reducing lifetime aquatic toxicity. The use of laundry disks or balls is already becoming widespread. They work with a ceramic surface or replaceable crystals which allegedly change the tension of the water to make it “wetter” in the same way surfactants do, although they do not replace stain removers or bleaches or conditioners. Such disks are reputed to last for up to 700 washes. A manufacturer could incorporate the same technology into the drum of a machine, and then sell a special kit of conditioner, bleach and stain remover that can be applied as necessary -- although these products are already available separately.

7.  Vegetable detergents would eliminate the use of petrochemicals, and several are already on the market. An interesting variant on this is the Soap Nut, literally a nut from India which has good cleaning properties. In most of Europe, you can find on the edges of forest a plant called soapwort  (Saponaria officinalis), the leaves of which should be boiled in an enamel pan to make a nice gentle soap solution.

8.  Eliminating the toxic emissions of the manufacturing stages would require looking at a wide range of suppliers' activities, but is possible. For example, while there a no zero-emission chroming processes at the moment, a ceramic or plastic washing machine drum could be used. As another example, the ecosystem impacts of metals mining could be avoided by using only recovered metals, and in the interim high impact metals such as copper could be reduced, as in the low copper motors used in Philips' Vision vacuum cleaner.


9.  A large part of the mass of a washing machine is the base, which is needed for stability. A report from Merloni, the Italian manufacturer, compared concrete and cast iron counterweights. The former material won, registering less than half the

ecopoints of the latter. Going one step further is to use water chamber as a base. This reduces both manufacturing and transportation impacts. However, a foolproof way of avoiding stagnation in this chamber is required.

10.  Using ambient outdoor energy is possible, as in the Fria fridge developed by Ursula Tischner at e(c)oncept which is built into an outside wall and has a larder section, making use of European winter conditions to maintain a cool temperature for more hardy foodstuffs.

11.  Three water inputs -- the Nordic Ecolabel on washing machines postulates that machines are best connected to both hot and cold water supplies. If a third line for lukewarm water from waste heat or solar collectors was added, then the system could become optimal.

12.  Cold water detergents, and design of machines for their use, would result in up to 80% energy savings.

13.  Apart from recycling waste water, it ma also be possible to capture waste heat. Michael Rowe, an electrical engineering professor at Cardiff University's School of Engineering used a series of thermocouples to generate current from heated water, successfully powering a colour TV from bathwater. The University has received a $2.9 million grant from the Japanese New Energy Development Organization (NEDO) to develop commercial products based on the idea. (Source: Environmental News Service)

14.  Clothing design for stain targeting can be achieved for example by having shirts with removable cuffs, collar and even armpits. The “super terry” nappy has a flushable paper liner and a washable cotton outer that needs to washed much less frequently than standard terries.

15.  More precise control through improved electronics and coordination. Italian firm Merloni has launched its "Ariston Digital" range of domestic appliances, which have the ability to communicate with one another and the outside world. Via telephone externally, or within the house through the mains circuits, each appliance constantly transmits information to the Assistance Centre on their running conditions or possible faults. They are aware, at all times, of how much power is being consumed and regulate the consumption accordingly, so as to avoid the risk of a black-out. They are also able to decide, should a black-out be likely to occur, which appliance should be given priority, e.g. the washing machine over the oven. At the same time, they can make appliances run more intensely during off-peak, cheaper rate hours.

The appliances are equipped with a state of the art regulation system, built with new hardware (specific microchips, 'mini computers' that regulate the appliances). New sensors, developed especially from Merloni Elettrodomestici, supply the microchip with all the necessary information to guarantee a better performance and lowest possible consumption (water, power, etc.).


Over the past fifteen years, there have been substantial improvements in the eco-efficiency of white goods in use. The amount electricity needed to run a fridge for a day, and the amount of water, electricity and detergent needed to wash a kilogramme of laundry have approximately halved. However, the rate of improvement is starting to level off, and attention must focus on turning white goods into systems that are fully compatible with nature. In particular, more progress needs to be made to achieve the goals of:

    closed loop appliance recovery and remanufacture;

    recovery and zero toxicity of washing machine effluent;

    effective low temperature washing;

    zero toxicity in manufacture; and

    use of 100% renewable energy in manufacture and use.