It’s Apple Day, and for once, I don’t have to take on the usual role of climate journalists completely raining on the parade of people hypebeasting the new iPhone.
I mean, look, of course you should run your old iPhone into the ground instead of buying a new one if you value a habitable planet and not foisting your conspicuous consumption habits onto the backs of poor communities tasked with mining the metals and constructing a new phone you don’t need while dealing with the waste created by you getting rid of your old but perfectly good phone, you monstrous bastard. But if you actually need a new phone and order the iPhone 12, you’ll be getting a lighter ethical load than usual.
The company announced it will no longer ship iPhones with headphones or wall chargers. To which I say, thank the lord. This is like the lowest of low-hanging fruits in the e-waste world, and Apple is finally plucking it. (Congratulations, you’ve just consumed your fruit quota for the day by reading that sentence.)
Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environmental initiatives, said during today’s event that there are currently 700 million Lightning headphones and 2 billion wall adapters in circulation. That’s a lot of plastic and metal already out in the wild, getting lost, trashed, or tossed in junk drawers. (I estimate about 12,448 of those headsets are in mine.)
Frankly, Apple’s out-of-the-box headphones are pretty bad, and, at least for my ears, really uncomfortable. They also don’t work with any other device that has a 3.5 millimeter jack, which includes Apple’s own laptops. In short, they’re among the most useless items Apple creates, and yet the company has continued to ship them with iPhones for years.
Removing headphones and wall chargers—another item you surely own multiples of if you’ve bought a smartphone in the past decade—from the iPhone package reduces the weight of the package itself, cutting down on carbon emissions produced as a result of Apple products. But it could also cut down on the amount of junk ending up in landfills.
A recent United Nations report shows that the world chucked out 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste in 2019, a record amount. Though the report doesn’t break out headphones specifically, let alone Apple headphones, it does show that e-waste made from small IT and telecommunications equipment accounted for 4.7 million metric tons of all e-waste generated last year. The UN report notes that just 17.4% of e-waste is formally recycled while the rest gets landfilled or ends up polluting communities or the natural world, owing to the broken nature of our recycling system and the fact that it’s tough for the average person to figure out what to do with busted headphones or other e-waste in the first place.
While more regulations are being put in place to deal with e-waste once it’s generated, one of the best things to do would be to choke it off at the source. Apple no longer shipping iPhone buyers gear they don’t in all likelihood need is a good start. That doesn’t exonerate Apple from other issues, though. The company has a long ways to go to fix the disposability of its wireless Airpods and the fact that its recycling efforts are still decidedly “eh.” And the no more wall charger thing itself may create issues for iPhone owners.
“This is great news for e-waste,” Carsten Frauenheim, a teardown engineer with iFixit, said in an email. “However, it’s very interesting that they’re shipping a Lightning to USB-C cable instead of USB-A. It’s the right direction, but now customers can’t use their old USB-A charging blocks—which essentially voids the “everyone already has charging blocks” idea. They’ll have to go out and buy a new charging block anyway.”
The right to repair front is Apple’s biggest environmental blindspot, though, making it harder for users to fix the devices they already have. Letting users repair their own devices on the cheap without voiding the warranty would cut down on carbon emissions involved in manufacturing new stuff as well as e-waste when they throw it into the trash or recycling. Of course, it would also cut into Apple’s profits when it puts out a shiny new phone like the iPhone 12. So while I’m definitely excited about what I won’t get once I order a new iPhone after killing my current one, it’s clear Apple still has a ways to go to fully clean up its act.