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Will Apple’s ‘eco-friendly’ plan to nix chargers actually help the environment?

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Last month, Apple unveiled a range of new iPads and Apple Watch smartwatches. But the bit that drew the most headlines and reactions wasn’t the breezy colors of the latest iPad Air or the Apple Watch 6’s ability to measure your blood oxygen levels.

Instead, it was the revelation that, while many anticipated, everyone believed was too bold to actually happen: Apple said it will no longer bundle a power adapter with the new Apple Watch Series 6 and Apple Watch SE smartwatches. Now, when you buy any one of these products, you will only get the watch itself, a charging cable, and a wrist band in the box.

The rationale was simple. Most buyers presumably already own a charger — possibly dozens in a drawer somewhere — and they don’t need another. By encouraging people to take advantage of and reuse the accessories they have at home, Apple says it will cut back on chargers in circulation and production — thereby reducing its carbon footprint and environmental impact.

“Sometimes it’s not what we make, but what we don’t make that counts,” proclaimed Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives at the virtual “Time Flies” event. “We know that customers have been accumulating USB power adapters and that producing millions of unneeded adapters consumes resources and adds to our carbon footprint. So this year, we are removing the USB power adapter from Apple Watch.”

How much do power adapters contribute to global e-waste? It’s complicated.

In theory, at least, Apple’s arguments make sense and could be that necessary nudge that puts an end to the charger-hoarding habits most of us are guilty of. And while taking away the in-box adapter may seem like a trivial step for tackling the world’s growing e-waste crisis, it could still have a sizable effect on the planet in more ways than one.

There are no definite figures that can tell us today exactly how much power adapters alone contribute to the global e-waste. But estimates Digital Trends acquired from several experts and organizations reveal that it’s significant enough to justify a move like the one Apple took.

Ruediger Kuehr, the director of United Nations University’s Sustainable Cycles program, an institution that publishes one of the most comprehensive annual studies on e-waste, claims 54,000 tons of power adapters are wasted annually from laptops, tablets, and mobile phones — about 0.1% of all humanity’s e-waste.

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Miquel Ballester, the design lead and co-founder of Fairphone, a Netherlands-based company that designs modular phones for longevity (and never offered an in-box charger for environmental reasons) said 0.2% of the world’s e-waste is made up of discarded smartphone cables and power adapters — amounting to about 20,000 tons of e-waste every year.

Anker CEO Steven Yang believes the figure is far too greater, however, and somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 tons (for all kinds of in-box chargers, even the one power drills come with).

“We calculate that there are over 4 billion chargers being shipped annually with over 95% being shipped with new mobile devices. This represents an estimated 300,000 tons of e-waste generated every year,” he told Digital Trends.

Further, research commissioned by the European Union last year to assess the impact of mandating a common charger for manufacturers, said mobile phone chargers are “responsible for around 11,000 – 13,000 tons of e-waste per year.”

The math is hazy here but it’s clear that tens of thousands of tons of e-waste originate from power adapters each year.

What impact will Apple’s decision to kill in-box chargers have?

When you look at this in simply the Apple Watch’s context, it doesn’t seem like much. But Apple is rumored to do the same with the next iPhone 12 series. Apple ships more than 200 million iPhones and 50 million Apple Watches annually — which means, over time once all models on sale forgo the in-box charger, more than 200 million fewer adapters will be manufactured saving tons of e-waste.

Apple isn’t alone either. Samsung is said to be considering abandoning in-box chargers for its next flagship lineup as well.

E-waste is not the only concern. Like any other electronic appliance, power adapters go through a cycle. From the supply chain to transportation to ultimately getting recycled or thrown away. Every one of these stages is responsible for producing swathes of harmless gases that pollute the climate.

“Apple says this move ‘will result in eliminating the carbon equivalent of over 50,000 cars from our roads per year.'”

It’s also worth noting that Apple’s removal of the adapter will lead to more compact packaging, which cuts down on production and transportation-related emissions. The box of the new Apple Watch Series 6 weighs 410 grams, 110 grams lighter than the one Apple Watch Series 5 comes in. That’s a tiny weight difference, but when we’re talking millions of products sold, those grams start to add up.

“The environmental impacts of shipping products around the globe are substantial,” Richard Neitzel, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan told Digital Trends. “Even small reductions in packaging materials have the potential to result in large environmental benefits given the massive scale of the global logistics network.”

iPhone 11 Pro Max vs. iPhone XS Max
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

But how much savings in emissions exactly? Apple says this move “and helping partners reduce carbon footprint will result in eliminating the carbon equivalent of over 50,000 cars from our roads per year.”

Given that a typical passenger vehicle releases about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, this translates into 230 kilotons CO2 conservation. Since power adapters produce an estimated 600-900kt CO2e annually, Apple is claiming to bring that number down by 30%.

It’s worth noting that Apple isn’t exclusively referring to its decision of no longer bundling chargers in this estimate but this math still offers you a ballpark idea of what this could mean for the environment.

Even if the direct impact is not substantial, adds Kuehr, this could help psychologically build up awareness. “Somewhere we need to start.”

Tech companies have a long way to go

But while Apple has taken a commendable leap — which most likely will soon become an industry-standard — analysts argue the Cupertino, California-company, at the same time, has also refused to adopt and often lobbied against obvious climate-friendly initiatives when there’s a potential chance of that hurting its business.

For starters, unlike its peers, Apple still hasn’t switched to universal USB Type-C ports for the iPhone. It has repeatedly pushed back against an EU legislature which seeks to mandate the use of USB Type-C ports. In a statement, earlier this year, Apple said that it believes “regulation that forces conformity across the type of connector built into all smartphones stifles innovation rather than encouraging it, and would harm consumers in Europe and the economy as a whole.”

“Smartphones account for a significant chunk of e-waste globally and their greenhouse gas footprint has tripled in the last decade.”

This is especially worrying given Apple now offers a Type-C port on its other products like the iPad and the MacBook — leaving Apple buyers no choice other than to carry multiple cables, chargers, and dongles.

While removing in-box chargers will limit consumption, the adoption of universal chargers will enable a longer-term and broader solution, says Kees Baldé, senior program officer in the United Nations University’s Sustainable Cycles program.

Plus, proprietary charging standards can throw a wrench in this plan too as fast-charging becomes a key feature buyers look for in new phones. Anker’s Yang tells Digital Trends that his company is “designing a new generation of USB-C chargers that can receive firmware updates via USB-C” and can be automatically upgraded to work with any future fast-charging protocols.

Longer-lasting phones could fix the problem

On top of all this, there’s also the question of repairability. Apple has lobbied against a bill that would allow people to easily repair their devices with official material and spare parts. The Right-to-Repair law will, in addition to resulting in longer-lasting products, shorten smartphone upgrade cycles, and the number of phones companies have to produce and ship every year. Some of its most popular products like the AirPods can’t be repaired at all and its cables and adapters are known to be frail and break down quicker than the ones offered by third-party makers like Anker.

Smartphones account for a significant chunk of e-waste globally and their greenhouse gas footprint has tripled in the last decade. Extending their life by even a couple of months can prove instrumental in curtailing that soaring graph.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Baldé is of the opinion that tech companies have failed to “set up producer responsibility schemes in countries to collect the e-waste of the products” and “to design their equipment such that it is repairable, durable, designed for recycling and fit for novel circular business models.”

Nathan Proctor, director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s campaign for the Right to Repair, who has spent the last couple of years advocating for better repairability in gadgets, calls for the need of new rules “that require every tech company, whether they be a giant or whether they be small, to make products that are repairable, that reduce their ecological footprint.”

“We need to restore the expectation that consumers have that when you buy something, you should be able to fix it and keep using it,” he added in an email to Digital Trends.

iFixit, which gave the Apple AirPods a repairability score of 0 out of 10, echoes the sentiment: “Manufacturers don’t want you to fix your stuff — they want you to buy new products. So they’ve created a repair monopoly, so they can control the price of repairs,” iFixit’s Olivia Webb told Digital Trends.

“Use of a smartphone for five to seven years can reduce CO2 emissions by around 30-45% for the whole life cycle.”

Over the years, Apple has largely remained restrictive about its products and made acquiring official manuals and spares a long, strenuous process for independent repair organizations like iFixit.

“Right now they’re selling us products designed to last until a new one comes out,” added Webb.

Further, studies have shown that improving smartphones’ life cycles can reap double-digital pro-environment returns. Fairphone’s assessment, for instance, revealed that the “use of a smartphone for five to seven years can reduce CO2 emissions by around 30-45% for the whole life cycle.”

“The industry is simply not geared towards taking product longevity into consideration in its business strategies and that is the main issue,” commented Fairphone’s Ballester.

Wireless charging remains a concern too among climate analysts. The tech behind this is known to be highly inefficient and consumes a lot more energy than wired systems.

Was this decision simply the result of a cost-saving strategy?

Another question that continues to be hanging in the balance is whose best interests Apple has in mind. Was this an environmental move or a purely cost-motivated business decision?

By not offering lower rates or any option for a power brick-like complimentary store credit, Apple puts buyers in a difficult spot. Customers, not Apple which is a $2 trillion company, who still need a charger will have to spend an extra $19 (or so) out of their own pockets to buy something they used to get for free in the box.

This suspicion grows stronger when you consider Apple originally was bundling a power adapter with the premium versions of the Apple Watch Series 6. So, it’s equally possible this decision simply the result of a cost-saving strategy for the lower-end models. The company backtracked on this after it gained press attention.

In spite of that, however, this is a step in the right direction. It’s just been executed poorly. Can Apple and the rest of the industry come up with a more consumer-friendly plan to save the planet? Only time will tell.

Apple overall also leads the tech industry in cutting its carbon footprint and secured a B-minus grade in a Greenpeace report that assessed several tech companies’ efforts to reduce their environmental impacts. In comparison, Samsung was rated a D-minus, Amazon got an F, and Google received a D-plus.

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Shubham Agarwal
Shubham Agarwal is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad, India. His work has previously appeared in Firstpost…
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