Apple is about to create another e-waste problem

When Apple moved from their 30-pin cable to the Lightning cable, there wasn’t much concern about e-waste. The iPod ecosystem was large but not gigantic and the resulting requirement to throw away docks and speakers led to some grumbling and, if some of the hotels I’ve stayed in lately are any indication, a big shrug. Consumers could simply upgrade their devices and big buyers, folks who buy hundreds of clock radios with iPod ports, for example, just gave up.

At this point, however, Apple is planning to move from Lightning to USB-C with the assumption that USB-C will be the gold standard for the next decade or so. This is a bold assumption, to be clear, and at this point it’s anyone’s guess what port standards will win.

That said, Apple has fumbled the ball again with their decision to phase out Lightning. While I’m no fan of the format – it’s silly to have multiple formats in the wild and I’ve yet to see much of a benefit in the Lightning cable versus USB-C – it’s also silly to make the move.

Apple has always thumbed its nose at convention. The idea of a walled garden began with Apple hardware and will probably end with them. Their selfish desire to control every port on their devices, from Firewire to Lightning to DisplayPort, is frustrating and silly. Now, however, they’re about to force us all to throw away millions of devices and cables, all because they couldn’t play nice in 2012.

The Problem of E-Waste

E-waste is a huge problem. E-waste often contains harmful substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, and brominated flame retardants. When not properly handled or disposed of, these substances can leach into the ground, contaminating soil, groundwater, and surface water. This poses serious health and environmental risks. For example, the leaching of these toxins can harm aquatic life and even enter human food chains, leading to various health problems.

Beyond the toxic materials, some electronic equipment, especially refrigerators and air-conditioners, contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are potent greenhouse gases. When these are not properly recycled or contained, they can be released into the atmosphere, contributing to the broader issue of global warming.

The improper disposal of e-waste also results in missed opportunities to reclaim valuable materials. Electronic devices contain precious materials like gold, silver, copper, and rare earth metals. Extracting these materials from the earth is resource-intensive and can lead to habitat destruction, soil erosion, and water contamination. When e-waste is simply discarded instead of being recycled, these valuable materials are lost, leading to more aggressive mining and its associated environmental degradation.

In some regions, burning e-waste is a common way to dispose of it, which releases toxic substances like dioxins, furans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons into the air. This kind of air pollution affects the environment and presents severe health risks to humans who breathe in these toxic fumes.

The chemicals and heavy metals in e-waste can also directly contaminate the soil. This affects the growth of plants and can alter the natural balance of nutrients in the ground. Moreover, when these contaminants enter the food chain, they can end up in the food we eat, leading to a host of health issues.

To counter these challenges, many nations and organizations are emphasizing sustainable e-waste management practices. Recycling, proper disposal methods, and consumer awareness are all pivotal in ensuring that e-waste’s environmental impact is minimized. Apple’s decision to swap cables now only exacerbates that problem even as it purports follow Europe’s requirement that all phones support USB-C after 2024. That they didn’t do this earlier is a travesty and a failure.

Apple can do what it wants. It knows that people will keep buying phones and accessories ad infinitum, Chinese ban or no. What is deeply frustrating is that this didn’t have to happen. They could have moved to USB-C half a decade earlier. They could have embraced standard cables early on. Instead, they consistently dumped new and “improved” cable standards

Why did Apple pick lightning in the first place?

But why did this all happen? Apple introduced the Lightning cable in 2012 to replace the older 30-pin dock connector for its iPhones, iPads, and iPods. While the USB-C connector has gained popularity and is hailed for its universality and technical advantages, there are several arguments one could make in favor of Apple’s Lightning connector when comparing the two:

  1. Size and Compactness: The Lightning cable is notably smaller than the USB-C. This small size has allowed Apple to design sleeker devices, particularly when it came to their mobile lineup. The compactness of the Lightning port has been especially beneficial for devices where space is at a premium.
  2. Reversible Design: Like the USB-C, the Lightning cable is reversible, meaning users don’t need to worry about which side of the connector is up when plugging it into a device. This was a feature of the Lightning connector before USB-C was widely adopted.
  3. Durability: Apple has claimed that the Lightning connector is more durable than its predecessor and, by design, some argue it might have advantages over USB-C in terms of wear and tear over time. The Lightning connector’s design avoids certain pitfalls of other connectors, such as bent pins.
  4. Consistency in the Apple Ecosystem: One of the strengths of Apple’s product lineup is the consistency across its ecosystem. By using the Lightning cable, Apple ensured that users could have a consistent charging and connectivity experience across a broad range of its products, from iPhones to iPads to AirPods.
  5. Control Over Licensing: Apple has control over the licensing of Lightning connector through its MFi (Made for iPhone/iPad) program. This means that any third-party manufacturer that wants to make a Lightning accessory must get Apple’s approval. This can be seen as both a pro and a con: On the positive side, it ensures a standard of quality and compatibility. On the downside, it can limit the variety of available accessories and potentially increase their cost.
  6. Safety Features: Apple often emphasizes safety and user experience. The proprietary nature of the Lightning connector allowed Apple to design safety features, such as mechanisms for controlling power surges, into the system. This can reduce risks associated with charging.

That said, it’s essential to note that the broader tech industry has largely embraced USB-C due to its versatility, high data transfer speeds, and power delivery capabilities. While Lightning had its advantages, especially in the early days and within the Apple ecosystem, the momentum seems to be shifting towards USB-C as a universal standard, even within Apple’s product lineup, such as their MacBooks and the iPad Pro series.

Stop it, Apple

At this point, let’s just settle on one standard. I know Apple doesn’t like to do this and we’re all proud to own our little Lightning dongles and devices. But can we just stop? We’re wasting resources, creating a massive e-waste problem, and at some point we’re all going to look at some janky clock radio in a Radisson and notice the Lightning port and sigh: another Apple “innovation” that essentially destroyed part of a rainforest as it died.

John Biggs

John Biggs is an entrepreneur, consultant, writer, and maker. He spent fifteen years as an editor for Gizmodo, CrunchGear, and TechCrunch and has a deep background in hardware startups, 3D printing, and blockchain. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, Wired, and the New York Times.

View all posts by John Biggs →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *