Cheap washing machines are cheap in the beginning, but don't always stay cheap in the long run. A high-end model hurts at checkout time, yet could produce up to five times more washes over its lifetime, according to one analysis. In the end, the "expensive" model might cost half as much per washing cycle as the "cheap" one.
The problem is a lot of us can't afford expensive washing machines, and we take the cheap way out. And that results in more profits for cheap-machine manufacturers, more old appliances going to landfill sites and messing up the environment, and, ultimately, more waste of precious resources.
But there is an alternative. Instead of buying and owning the expensive machine, you can rent it. That means you can potentially share in the upside of the expensive machine and help the environment at the same time. And, in the Netherlands at least, it's now possible. An entrepreneur recently started a washing-machine subscription service that charges based on use. It could be a world first.
The service, called Bundles, is available in the Amsterdam area at the moment. It offers Miele WKG 120 WCS machines, which cost about $1,800 new (roughly a third more than a basic model). Service plans start at about $26 per month (18.95 euros) for 15 loads, rising to about $30 a month for 35 washes. An engineer comes to your home to install the device, and Bundles deals with any maintenance issues.
Founder Marcel Peters has rented out 15 units so far. He keeps track of each one with a "smart plug" that measures electricity flows every two seconds. That tells him how often customers wash, how efficiently they're cleaning clothes, and whether the machine might need repairs (if it's wearing out, it will use more energy to do the same thing). If customers don't use up their quota of washes in any month, he hands back a refund: about 70 dollar-cents per load, up to three loads.
Peters says subscribing to the service is only marginally more expensive than buying the model yourself. Plus, Bundles offers advice about keeping energy costs down. It's also a lot cheaper than leasing to buy, which could come in at double the starting price once the contract is up, he says.
He got the idea after visiting the appliance manufacturer Miele and hearing about how many people couldn't afford the upfront cost of their products. The German company is offering Peters a discount on the first appliances, and it plans to incorporate the plug and software if Bundles is successful. Peters hopes to raise more financing and launch in a bigger way this year.
Because Peters takes back the machines when people are finished with them, he can ensure they're reused or disposed of properly. Ultimately, the aim is to create a circular loop that encourages people to buy better washing machines and to create washing machines that are better for recycling.
"What it's all about is to create a machine that never breaks down, or if it does break down, that you can take out all the scarce resources in the machine," he says. "There are metals like copper that can be recycled. They don't need to end up at the scrap heap."