A million tons of power adapters are made each year
Over the weekend, lots of sites reported that Apple analyst Ming-chi Kuo is claiming that the iPhones due to be released later this year won’t have chargers or EarPods in the box. If you want to know what most tech bloggers thought of the rumor, you can head over here to see all the tweets, almost all of which amount to “that sounds like a bad, user-hostile thing to do.”
I say good: drop the in-box charger (but I have a couple requests).
The clearest piece I’ve seen about pulling the charger out of the box comes from venture capitalist MG Siegler. He points out that there are four reasons that Apple might have for doing this: increased margins, shipping costs, the transition to a future no-port iPhone, and the environment. That list, for Siegler, is in order of importance for Apple.
Maybe! It very well might be the case that Apple is making this move for purely selfish reasons, charging the same amount of money and giving a customer less. It also means people who don’t already have a charger will be made to buy one — and boy howdy Apple’s own chargers aren’t the cheapest.
To all of those issues and more I say: yep, but I don’t care. Let’s talk about the scale of e-waste. In 2018, Anker is the company that makes the most well-regarded external batteries and chargers and Yang was there to talk about his vision for the future of chargers and USB-C. He said:
There’s one hope we really have, not only at Anker but others in the industry, that’s really to turn chargers from majority being in-box to majority being bring your own charger.
Of course that would be good for Anker, which sells chargers. But it would also be good for the environment. Yang’s napkin math for how many of those little wall warts are sold every year are eye-popping:
[Say] every smartphone has a charger with it. We had 1.5 billion smartphones that shipped last year. … That’s only for phones. When we have tablets, laptops, power drills, [and more], we estimate a total of four billion chargers (were shipped last year). We estimate about 300,000 tons of e-waste just from these in-box chargers.
The International Telecommunications Union estimates that “one million tons of external power supplies are manufactured each year.” Whatever the number that actually turns into waste ends up being, it’s unnecessarily high. Yang’s solution turns out to be very similar to the solution that the European Union has been pushing for: common, universal chargers.
To me, the scale of the e-waste problem outweighs the potential frustration that Apple is getting one over on consumers by making them buy a charger separately.
Which brings me to my requests, only one of which has a ghost of a chance.
First, Apple can solve a lot of that potential resentment by simply offering consumers a choice: a free charger with an iPhone or an Apple Store gift card for an equal value. Hell — for people that take the gift card, Apple gets to make some of that money back via its own subscription services or App Store cut anyway.
Second, I’d like Apple to finally do the right thing and switch the iPhone to USB-C. Apple switched its computers to USB-C, it switched the iPad Pro to USB-C, and nearly every other smartphone sold today is charged via USB-C. It would reduce e-waste. It would reduce the number of cables we’re all forced to carry around and keep track of. A major form factor change (as is rumored for the iPhone 12) presents a great opportunity for Apple to make the switch.
I am fully aware this is not going to happen, no need to tweet at me about it. I know.
Apple itself signed on to a pledge to support universal chargers along with other major consumer electronics companies, though there’s a big distinction between the plug on the charger end and the plug on the phone end. Apple is technically keeping its word by putting USB-C on one end.
By the way, one question that is still pending is whether the cable that (dear god, presumably) comes with the iPhone 12 will have USB-C on one end. Lots of people have drawers full of USB-A chargers, but I think those drawers may not have quite as many USB-C adapters.
If it pans out, Apple’s decision to yank the wall wart out of the box probably serves as more evidence that it’s sticking with Lightning. Existing iPhone users have chargers and cables sitting around to charge their new phones, but asking them to switch to USB-C and buy chargers is a bridge too far.
There have too many rumors about a forthcoming iPhone that only has wireless charging to ignore. So the idea is that Apple won’t switch to USB-C because it’s planning on moving directly to having no ports at all. Everybody seems to assume it’s coming, and I remain unconvinced it’s a good idea. Wireless chargers simply cost more, for one thing. For another, most wireless charging solutions are much too slow compared to what you can get with a good wired charger, so something faster needs to be developed. And, well, Apple doesn’t exactly have a strong track record with wireless charging innovation, does it?
That angst can wait, though. This year, the angst about charging will be whether or not Apple puts a power adapter in the box. I say pull it. We’ll deal and — maybe more importantly — we just might start thinking more about how our tech purchasing habits affect the planet.
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