Apple’s decision to skip the charger and EarPods sounds like a step that would reduce the company’s environmental footprint. But it’s not that simple.
Apple’s newest iPhone comes with no charging adapter or EarPods in the box. It’s the same with the Apple Watches that debuted last month. A charging cable is included (USB-C to Lightning cable for the iPhone 12), but Apple wants buyers to supply their own charging bricks to plug into the wall.
The company’s reasons are straightforward. “Customers already have over 700 million Lightning headphones, and many customers have moved to a wireless experience,” said Lisa Jackson, vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives at Apple, during Tuesday’s iPhone launch event. “There are also over 2 billion Apple power adapters out there in the world, and that’s not counting the billions of third-party adapters. We’re removing these items from the iPhone box, which reduces carbon emissions and avoids the mining and use of precious materials.”
With fewer items included, the iPhone’s packaging is smaller. Jackson claims that Apple can fit up to 70 percent more products on a shipping pallet. “Taken all together, the changes we’ve made for iPhone 12 cut over 2 million metric tons of carbon annually; it’s like removing 450,000 cars from roads every year.”
Some accessory makers say the move is welcome, offering customers more choice. And Apple should be commended for making a transparent effort to decrease its environmental footprint. But sustainability experts are skeptical, saying that Apple’s efforts make only a small impact on the growing electronic waste crisis.
The world generated 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste in 2019, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, a report coauthored by Ruediger Kuehr, head of the Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme hosted by the United Nations University, with collaboration from other organizations including the International Telecommunication Union. That number will continue to spike up to 74 million metric tons by 2030, almost double the amount recorded in 2014.
E-waste, which includes batteries, appliances, phones, screens, and cables, might seem like junk at the end of its lifecycle to the people tossing it out, but those items contain traces of valuable components like iron, copper, and gold. The report says the value of raw materials in global e-waste from 2019 sits at around $57 billion. Much of this e-waste ends up in developing countries like Ghana and Thailand, and it has spawned an industry of people scavenging for these valuable parts to make a living. But the e-waste also contains toxic materials.
“A total of 50 tons of mercury and 71 kilotons of [brominated flame retardant] plastics are found in globally undocumented flows of e-waste annually, which is largely released into the environment and impacts the health of the exposed workers,” the report says.
Apple routinely touts its efforts to reduce toxic components in its hardware. In its 2020 Environmental Progress Report, the company says it spent four years researching and developing an alternative to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a material used in the manufacturing process of power cords. The resulting material isn’t toxin-free, but Apple claims it has a “lower toxicological and ecological risk.” It often points out these advancements, like “arsenic-free display glass,” and “Beryllium-free” components in environmental reports about its products.
Yet Kuehr says it’s important to put the impact of the removal of the charger and EarPods from the latest iPhones and Apple Watches into perspective.
“The percentage of chargers coming from tablets, smartphones, et cetera is 0.1 percent of the total e-waste increase,” he said. “This makes up roughly 54,000 metric tons of e-waste generated. If you consider only Apple’s portion, it’s probably half or less. At the maximum, you could probably say it’s 25,000 metric tons, or 0.05 percent of the total e-waste increase annually.”
The lack of a charging adapter in the box doesn’t mean people won’t need them anymore, Kuehr says. People may use what they have available at home, but many will still buy adapters from Apple. Those will now need to be packed and shipped separately from the phones, thereby increasing the environmental consequences.
Sara Behdad, a sustainability researcher at the University of Florida, agrees. “Apple’s analysis is based on this impression that some users really don’t need chargers and EarPods, because they already have them. Some users don’t. Then they have to purchase them, and that requires packaging and extra transportation.”
The relationship between a charger and an iPhone isn’t necessarily one-to-one, either. Behdad says she’s used more chargers than the number of phones she’s owned. While this is anecdotal, and Behdad says there need to be surveys and more research to make any conclusive statements, it’s quite possible people will buy more than one charger from Apple or other accessory makers.
There are other concerns about Apple’s claim that it can pack more product on shipping pallets because of the iPhone 12’s smaller box.
“They talk about pallet utilization in which they can somehow transport more iPhones,” Behdad says. “The way that it’s distributed is not based on how many they can put in a pallet but based on demand, and I don’t think the demand will change. If they already sell 100 units of iPhones to a specific store, they will still ship that number after today. They don’t suddenly ship 200 to the store. They ship based on demand, not based on how many they can put on a pallet.”
Kuehr also highlights that Apple doesn’t use a universal charging cable among its portfolio of devices. The iPhone uses a proprietary Lightning port, but most of the tech industry has turned to the USB-C connector for charging, connecting displays, and transferring files. The same USB-C cable used to recharge Facebook’s Oculus Quest virtual reality headset can also juice up a Samsung phone or a Chromebook. Yet two different cables are required between Apple’s iPad Pro and the iPhone, creating more e-waste.
Similarly, last year’s iPhone 11 included a power adapter with a USB-A port. The iPhone 12 comes with only a USB-C to Lightning cable, which is incompatible with that adapter. Unless you have a USB-C adapter from a third-party accessory maker or from other electronics you purchased, you’ll need a new adapter.
Apple has previously argued against the European Union’s push for a universal charger across all smartphones, saying it would stifle innovation and create an “unprecedented volume of electronic waste,” as people would get rid of their Lightning accessories and cables en masse.
Yet the company today announced a new MagSafe system for the iPhone 12, allowing the device to securely and magnetically attach to other accessories, like wireless chargers, cases, and wallets. Existing wireless chargers will still recharge the iPhone 12 range, but customers are likely going to adopt this new system and dispose of their older accessories. Aira, a company that makes unique wireless charging tech that can detect a device’s placement rather than requiring specific positioning on the user’s part, says MagSafe adds a “layer of fragmentation and exclusion to the mix.”
“Apple has now created two divergent paths for wireless charging: one focused on free device placement on a surface that supports the globally-adopted Qi standard and another that is proprietary to a specific product and company,” reads a statement on Aira’s website. An accessory-maker can offer a wireless charger for both Android and iPhone owners, but now they will need to create separate MagSafe variants for iPhone 12 owners.
Then there’s the issue of repairability. Kuehr says Apple can do more to allow consumers the option to repair their own devices. The company has notoriously lobbied against legislation that would require Apple to grant customers access to the resources required to perform their own fixes. Apple made some strides toward repairability in 2019 when it started offering independent repair businesses the same manuals and tools used by authorized service providers, but repair advocates say it should make these available to customers too.
More important is reaching a closed loop in its production cycle—using 100 percent recycled materials for the entire manufacturing process—as this is the area where a phone’s environmental impact is the largest. Kuehr says it starts by Apple setting up its own system to get its devices back in its hands, thus reducing the need to mine the earth for materials. “Then they will design the machines in a way that they’re easier to repair, where components can be reused.”
Apple announced such an initiative in 2017 with the goal of creating such a closed supply loop, and it has made some progress. The new iPhone 12 range uses 100 percent recycled rare earth elements for all the magnets inside, and the same is true of the Taptic Engine (which provides haptic feedback) in last year’s iPhone. Apple has also been using 100 percent recycled aluminum enclosures for several years in select products. It employs disassembly bots to recover these precious materials from used devices, and the company also recently set its sights on becoming carbon neutral by 2030.
It will take quite some time before Apple unveils an iPhone made completely of recycled components and materials. And that’s precisely why Kuehr is apprehensive of the latest announcement about the charging adapter. “One should be a little bit careful in claiming too much for only taking away chargers from the parcel, because there’s a lot more to be done by a large company.”
Adapt and Change
The idea of excluding a charging adapter isn’t new. It was thought up several years ago as a way to cut prices on already affordable phones, says George Paparrizos, senior director of product management at Qualcomm. It didn’t catch on because, at the time, charging standards and ports were not unified.
However, the world has rallied around the reversible USB-C connector, the port found on today’s MacBooks, Windows laptops, Android phones, select iPads, headphones, and many other devices. Paired with the open Power Deliverystandard for battery charging, the latest spec allows adapters to output up to 100 watts, with the ability to scale down if the device that’s plugged in can’t accept that much power.
Qualcomm’s new Quick Charge 5 protocol supports the PD standard and can output 100 watts as well. Qualcomm claims it can fully recharge a phone in just 15 minutes. The adapters included with many phones today aren’t adequate enough to recharge bigger, power-hungry machines, but as more high-power chargers arrive, Paparrizos says, you’ll be able to carry a single adapter to charge your smartphone, tablet, laptop, and other gadgets.
There’s another solution that already exists, and it’s quickly becoming popular among accessory makers. It’s called gallium nitride (GaN), and it’s a compound with semiconductor properties. Before it began appearing in chargers, it was used to create the blue LED in the early 1990s, which in turn made it even easier to create the efficient white LEDs that currently power everything from street lamps to your smartphone’s screen. The scientists behind the feat won a Nobel Prize in 2014.
In the early 2000s, those in the power electronics field started thinking about GaN as a substitute for silicon transistors, says Huili Grace Xing, a materials science researcher at Cornell University. Gallium and nitrogen, when bonded, have features that are advantageous when used for charging. For example, the compound can cool faster while also operating at higher temperatures.
Other benefits are more visual. Using GaN results in a charging adapter that’s significantly smaller despite offering the same power, if not more. Take accessory-maker Aukey’s 100-watt GaN power adapter, which costs $40. Not only is it cheaper than the 96-watt adapter Apple includes for its 16-inch MacBook Pro ($79), but it’s also 36 percent smaller.
In my own charging tests, the Aukey adapter fully recharged a MacBook Pro a few minutes faster than Apple’s—in about an hour and 20 minutes. Aukey’s 61-watt GaN charger also juiced up the latest iPad Pro an hour faster than the adapter Apple includes in the box. The days of lugging around a giant brick are quickly disappearing.
Reducing the need for multiple chargers, and the fact that GaN enables smaller-sized electronics, means it could make a small impact in reducing electronic waste. “This means less plastics, less ceramics, less metal wires, less processing, less reprocessing to deliver the same function,” Xing says.
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