The E-Waste Problem: A Case Study of Apple

by Finn Beckett-Hester, GLOBUS Correspondent

According to a UN report, electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing form of domestic waste globally, with around 50 million metric tonnes being produced in 2019 alone, of which only 20% was recycled. This is environmentally and socially problematic. E-waste contains an array of toxic substances including lead, mercury, and brominated flame retardants, the disposal of which consists primarily of landfill deposition and incineration. These practices posit major contamination risks, such as leachates which can percolate into groundwater, and the release of toxic gases into the atmosphere. Kiddee et al. provides a case study on the uneven political economy of disposal, with estimates that some 80% of e-waste produced in developed nations, who produce the most waste, is exported to developing nations such as Thailand who bear the brunt of the social and environmental externalities. The research illustrated the physiological impacts caused by this exposure on those living in the region, such as higher blood cadmium levels contributing to irreversible impacts on the kidneys. Not only does the production of e-waste have devastating environmental and social impacts, it is also incredibly wasteful economically. The UN estimates that 7% of the world’s gold may be contained in e-waste, with 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in gold ore. These are precious and non-replenishable resources. Therefore, the current e-waste problem poses a major obstacle to equitable and sustainable development. Due to the primacy of private business in global production there must be a combined effort between the public and private sector. This article will use Apple as a case study to look at what is being done to reduce e-waste and where improvements can be made.

Apple is the most valuable technology company in the world with a market capitalisation of over 2 trillion USD. Inevitably, this means that Apple plays a large role in the production and management of e-waste, and like most other companies vying for a sustainable representation, is attempting to greenwash its appearance to follow the zeitgeist. Apple’s flawless website presents an array of statistics and statements illustrating its commitment to environmental sustainability, which are indeed impressive, albeit not without flaws.

Apple has one of the most aggressive environmental agendas in the industry, which is to be carbon neutral by 2030, meaning that each product it produces will have a net-zero impact on the environment as part of a circular economy. Apple has already taken a number of steps to achieve this goal, the first of which is a holistic recycling programme, that recycles tin, cobalt and utilises carbon-free aluminium. Secondly, Apple is investing in research and development to aid in recycling, the outcome of this is Daisy, a robot that went into operation in 2018 which disassembles old smartphones and tablets to extract their materials. Daisy dismantles at a rate of 200 iPhone per hour. However, there is only one Daisy in existence, meaning it is more of a PR stunt and greenwashing initiative that a practical and comprehensive solution. Thirdly, as of 2018, Apple’s global facilities are 100% powered by renewable energy sources, an incredibly impressive feat which undoubtedly sets an example for other companies to follow. Finally, and unlike its Android counterparts, Apple ensures that its older devices receive software support and updates for many years. For example, the iPhone 6S, released in 2015, received the latest iOS 14 update in 2020. MacOS Big Sur is also supported for MacBooks 2013 onwards. This means that as long as the hardware survives, you can expect your Apple device to receive updates for an extended period compared to the competition.

Apple’s latest attempt at embedding sustainable practices into its business model came with the launch of iPhone 12. In the October 13th Keynote, Apple stated that it would be removing the power brick and wired headphones from its packaging. The rationale behind this is (i) that some two billion power bricks are already in existence; (ii) most people already have or use wireless headphones; (iii) and finally a smaller box would enable 70% more iPhones to be shipped at any one time. Prima facie, this is a substantial move towards reducing e-waste. It is likely that this move will be reflected, where possible, throughout Apple’s line-up, evident with the lack of a power brick in Apple’s AirPods Max which were released on December 15th 2020.

However, this facet of Apple’s rebranding as a sustainable, environmentally friendly corporation is an example of greenwashing. For one, the cable that is included in the iPhone 12 box is Lightning to USB type-C, which is problematic because all previous iPhones aside from the 11 used USB-A. This nullifies the statement that two billion power bricks in circulation will be usable, assuming that most individuals do not already own an iPhone 11 and will upgrade to the 12. The alternatives that Apple offer is to spend an extra £19 for a compatible power brick or £39 for the new MagSafe charger. This ultimately translates to a substantial proportion of individuals buying new accessories which will have to be shipped separately and with more packaging than if it had just been included in the box. Whilst this does have some potential to reduce e-waste, it will increase energy usage in shipping and materials in packaging. Furthermore, in typical Apple-fashion, the cost savings made will not be transferred to the consumer as the price of the latest iPhone has not decreased despite the removal of the headphones and power brick. This illuminates that Apple’s motivation is perhaps not virtuous commitment to the environment, but purely profit.

Apple has a historic commitment to planned obsolesce, a policy whereby products are designed with an artificially restricted lifetime. Whereas Apple’s software updates are industry-leading, its essentially irreparable hardware across nearly all product lines means products have a limited use period. This was not always the case however, in tech communities it is well documented that Macs before the 2012 Retina MacBook Pro could have their hard drives, RAM and batteries upgraded to improve speed and longevity. 2012 saw a change in this rubric, when the ability to change the RAM, battery or hard drive became essentially impossible because the RAM and hard drive became soldered to the logic board, apparently to keep products thin. What this means now is that if either of these two components are damaged, it is likely the entire logic board will need to be replaced by the Apple Geniuses. Since buying my MacBook Pro in late 2018, I have encountered the prohibitive costs of sending my computer to Apple for repair. A keyboard replacement totalled £474.17 and a screen replacement came to £322. Luckily I had AppleCare+, a £200+ extended warranty option offered within 90 days of purchase. Whilst I do not fault the warranty as Apple’s customer care is indeed one of the best out there, these costs out of warranty would make a machine, potentially over three years old, uneconomical to repair, and thus an incentive for replacement. Additionally, the manufacturing of the products themselves are largely wasteful. Apple’s innovative unibody design for its laptops are milled from an extruded block of aluminium; this means that rather than the aluminium being melted and cast using all of its material, it is drilled out of a solid block. Whilst this has aesthetic and functional benefits it creates a lot of waste which needs to be recycled.

Apple has made substantial progress in recent years regarding its social sustainability, again illustrated on their vibrant website. Apple was forced to consider the human aspects of its operations as a result of revelations that its manufacturing plants in China, managed by Foxconn, were experiencing a large number of worker suicides and other human rights abuses such as unpaid overtime and poor living conditions. Whilst conditions have improved, reforms have not gone far enough. As recent as 2017, Foxconn was employing student workers who were working unpaid overtime in order to ‘graduate’, in violation of local laws which were implemented in 2014. Foxconn has consistently proven that it cannot be trusted to ensure fair and safe working environments for its workers, and yet Apple continues to use its services.

What needs to be done and what can be done? The European Parliament announced on November 25th 2020 that the right to repair devices would be enshrined in law. This would come alongside a reparability score to be implemented in January 2021. The idea is that a low score will incentivise manufacturers to improve their reparability skills. However, further action is required at the governance and business level. Firstly, there needs to be a reduction in the VAT on repair of electrical products to make it economical to repair products. Secondly, products from Apple and other manufacturers need to prioritise modular and upgradable design over recycling, as recycling still uses a large amount of energy. Thirdly, these companies should introduce a recycling programme whereby old, incompatible chargers can be swapped out for new ones. All producers should be obligated to collect waste products and pay for their recycling, and they should not be allowed to export these products abroad. This will reduce transportation costs and prevent externalities from accruing to developing countries. Finally, Apple’s recycling programme, specifically the Daisy programme, must be expanded so that the consumption of vital raw materials is reduced and reused.

Ultimately, e-waste poses a major problem to achieving social, economic and environmental sustainability. It is the role of international and national government and the private sector to address this problem. The European Parliament resolution and proposed government regulations will hopefully compel private companies to produce more modular and environmentally – sensitive products.

Photo by Michał Kubalczyk on Unsplash

2 comments

  1. This is one fascinating case study of novel entities, as the issue of e-waste might be interpreted through the framework of Planetary Boundaries. I wonder if it’s time to update the case study on GD105, to move from microplastics to e-waste… Either way, I’m going to add this to the optional reading for this year; useful content on the issues and governance possibilities, but also some good demonstration of how citations and sound scholarship can be applied beyond essays to make a positive contribution to public learning.

    Like

    1. Thank you for your kind words Alastair and really engaging with my article. I think updating the curriculum to include E-waste would be a timely move!

      Like

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