Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Charging Bricks and Headphones Now Sold Separately

Jon Porter, the Verge:

Apple’s new iPhone 12 lineup will ship without wall chargers or Lightning EarPods in the box to reduce the phone’s environmental impact, the company announced today. Instead, they’ll come with just a USB-C to Lightning cable. As well as the new phones, Apple is also removing the accessories from its existing iPhone models going forward.

Apple says it’s not including a charger or earbuds with the iPhone 12 series on environmental grounds; similarly, it didn’t include a charging brick with this year’s Apple Watch models. The company says the move means it has to consume fewer raw materials for each iPhone sold. It also allows for a smaller retail box, which means 70 percent more units can fit on a single shipping pallet and reduce carbon emissions. Overall, Apple estimates the changes will cut over 2 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually, the equivalent of removing 450,000 cars from the road each year.

When Lisa Jackson showed these numbers during last week’s Apple Event, they illustrated to me the scale of Apple’s decisions — even the smallest ones. Simply not including chargers and headphones in a box where they may sit unused is, truly, a large environmental benefit. But not everyone who buys an iPhone from now on can be assumed to have their own wall adapter or headphones.

Julian Chokkattu, Wired:

Sara Behdad, a sustainability researcher at the University of Florida, agrees. “Apple’s analysis is based on this impression that some users really don’t need chargers and EarPods, because they already have them. Some users don’t. Then they have to purchase them, and that requires packaging and extra transportation.”

The relationship between a charger and an iPhone isn’t necessarily one-to-one, either. Behdad says she’s used more chargers than the number of phones she’s owned. While this is anecdotal, and Behdad says there need to be surveys and more research to make any conclusive statements, it’s quite possible people will buy more than one charger from Apple or other accessory makers.

This is all true, but it is unclear how many more sets of EarPods and wall adapters will actually be sold. I do not think every person who will buy a new iPhone will also buy both accessories; but, I am also sure that some of the people who buy a new iPhone will buy one of the accessories. It is not clear if that factored into Apple’s calculations, but it also does not make sense to assume that all or even most customers will buy replacement accessories.

And, if we’re speaking anecdotally, my ratio between box-included items and devices is far in favour of Apple’s change. I just checked my iPhone X box and its wall adapter and Lightning cable are both sitting neatly as they were when it left the factory. I gave the headphones away.

Matt Birchler:

[…] I’ve talked to a few “normal people” about the new iPhones and in my small sample size, no one is buying the environmental argument. I think Apple genuinely wants to do better with the environment, and this move likely comes from a good place, but I don’t think they went far enough to convince folks that the reason is anything more than penny pinching.

[…]

When someone buys an iPhone from Apple (in-person or online), they should be prompted to get a free USB-C charging brick as well. Not the same $19 it is after the fact, and not a reduced price of $9 or something, free. This is an essential step in making it not look like a cash grab.

I do not mean to single out Birchler here. I have seen lots of people make the same suggestion but I think Birchler articulates this entire issue very well in his article.

The problem I see with this is that many people will add one to their order “just in case”. It is like when a fast food place puts a napkin dispenser out in the open and people take a whole stack back to their table. If, however, the napkins are provided from behind the counter, people often take less. Yes, it sometimes means that you will have to ask for more, but it is better than wasting many.

I think people understand the urgency with which the Earth’s environment needs protecting, but are unwilling to make significant changes to make that happen. Again, I am not directing this at Birchler at all. This is something Apple desperately wants to believe, and quotes Jackson on its environment marketing page:

To protect the planet, we must show others that impossible can be business as usual.

The message here is basically you don’t have to change your habits and expectations to reduce humanity’s impact on the planet, and I think that sets the wrong tone. If you need a charging brick now, you’ll have to spend some money, and that might cause you to think twice about whether you actually need that brick.

It’s more complicated for the headphones. You’ll think about spending your money on a pair of EarPods, but then you might start thinking about buying a set of AirPods instead. AirPods have a more-or-less fixed lifespan dependent on how the battery holds up, and they cannot be repaired. But, now, the question is whether you would have bought that set of AirPods without being prompted by the lack of headphones in the box — if you would have, then including headphones would have created environmental waste, too.

The takeaway here is the same as every environmental story: you should buy only what you really need; in a distant second place, you should reuse what you already have; and in third place, very far behind, you should recycle what you must get rid of. But we only really achieve gains when we reduce consumption and — not one of the three r’s, but it ought to be — regulate environmental impact to a more stringent degree.