As the news and reviews of the iPhone 5 stream across my desktop, a New York Times story by Brian Chen caught my attention. Apple has replaced the long, thin power and data connector port on its legacy phones with a smaller port, on which the company has hung the moniker “Lightening.” The new port reportedly satisfies a desire to make the phone thinner.
But as Chen notes, the new port is also “instantly rendering obsolete the millions of spare charging cords, docks and iPhone-ready clock radios that its customers have accumulated over the years.”
He notes that Apple is “selling Lightning cables and $30 adapters that will connect the new phones to many but not all older accessories.”
With this one design decision, Apple has destined millions of cables and un-adaptable accessories to the dust-bin of history, figuratively speaking. But literally speaking, it has added these objects to the already massive and growing global e-waste problem.
In 2010, 2.44 million tons of electronics were discarded in the United States, according to the EPA. Of that, 649,000 tons were recovered for recycling. Of those recovered, the amount that was actually recycled often unknown, as are the final destinations of those electronics or the working conditions of the people recycle them (but much evidence points to those working conditions being very poor).
Now, much is being done to curb e-waste, and Apple is among a number of manufacturers that have made improvements (from a very low bar) in the amount of toxic materials that they put into their products, which lowers, therefore, the toxicity of the products at their end of life.
Obviously, larger issues loom here, beyond the inconvenience and cost that the new port will cause consumers. U.S. legislators have yet to pass federal regulations that would require electronics be properly recycled. Beyond that, device makers continue to churn out iterations of hardware rather than relying on software upgrades for a longer period of time. As consumers, our insatiable appetite for new (and newer) stuff is only fueling that practice.
Still, switching the port design on the iPhone 5 — while it’s certainly good news to manufacturers of accessories who are in the game of making and selling more stuff — is not only irksome to Apple’s consumers, it’s environmentally irresponsible.