Your iPhone won’t last forever, even if you want it to. You’ll crack the screen, or its battery will crap out, and if the physical flaws don’t get you, the software will: Some approaching iOS update will either slow that sucker down or render it obsolete.
And then you’ll have to buy a new one. Which sucks, assuming you’d prefer not to be on the hook for $700 every couple of years—and assuming you’d rather not deplete the planet’s limited mineral resources (needed for batteries), or send dangerous e-waste to junk heaps in foreign countries.
A new 43-page report released on Thursday by The Repair Association highlights this issue. Its purpose is to bring attention to the lax environmental standards that give every corporation a shining gold star for achieving the bare minimum—like some level of energy efficiency—while completely disregarding meaningful steps that would make a difference to both your wallet and the environment.
Because, duh, corporations like Apple like money more than anything, no matter how glossy their environmental websites are, and they make a lot more of it when you’re compelled to replace your gadgets every couple of years, or as a member of the iPhone Upgrade Program, literally every 12 months. It may not be surprising, but in an era of “activist” tech corporations, it’s jarring to find the bottom line so nakedly championed at the expense of consumers and the planet they live in.
The system is rigged
This isn’t sexy, but the core issue has to do with environmental standards, which are ratified in committees far from your prying eyes. Advocacy groups and nonprofits have been urging corporations like Apple to adopt policies that would make it easier for people to repair gadgets like the iPhone, but they’re unable to gain traction. That’s because the groups governing these standards are largely controlled by the companies bound to these rules to begin with. In short, the inmates are running the asylum.
“The manufacturers hold almost all of the votes,” Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, a popular gadget repair company, said. “They’re basically writing the standards themselves.”
Products are designed to be replaced, not repaired
The so-called “right to repair” has been an issue for years. The logic is very simple: If it was easy for you to replace your smartphone battery and access tools and instructions to repair the rest of your gadgets, those devices would last longer. Good for you, good for the planet, bad for Apple’s bottom line.
Tech companies can currently sell products without following meaningful repair and recycling standards. Phones are built with proprietary screws that require special tools, every bit and bob is sealed into the device with strong adhesive; the final products may be beautiful, but they’re designed to be replaced, not repaired.
“Extending the life of used products means [manufacturers] may sell fewer new products,” Sarah Westervelt, a policy director at the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing toxic trade, said.
“If customers learn that the greenest products include those that are built for a long life and can be easily repaired and upgraded, with batteries easily replaced, then our societies will slow down the ‘product churn’,” she added, “which is creating unimaginable long-term hazardous waste problems around the world, particularly in developing countries where much of our toxic e-waste ends up.”
Apple turns into the punching bag whenever this comes up—as it should. As the world’s most profitable company, it commands a disproportionate influence. And it loves to celebrate its own greenness (it notes on its website that the iPhone 7’s box is made in part out of waste sugarcane).
“As long a manufacturers remain in control of the standards, repair [issues] will not be addressed”
For every handclap Apple’s earned committing to renewable energy, it deserves a jeer for willfully creating a system that drains your wallet and hurts the planet. As I reported with HuffPost reporter Andy Campbell last year, Apple consistently lobbies against legislation that would help you squeeze more life out of your gadgets, all so that it can maintain total control over devices that are purchased and owned by consumers. Gordon Gekko might call this reasonable—but we’d argue it’s a bunch of bullshit.
Apple also appears to stymie environmental standards much more than its competitors. As explained by The Repair Association’s report, Apple strongly opposed a measure to reward companies for building smartphones with removable batteries.
“One manufacturer steadfastly opposed this proposal and refused to vote for its inclusion in the standard: Apple,” the report says. “Even though it was just an optional criteria.”
Mashable provided Apple with an advance copy of The Repair Association’s paper prior to publishing this article. In response, Apple sent us the following statement:
“Highly-integrated design allows us to make products that are not only beautiful, thin and powerful, but also durable, so they can last for many years. When repairs are needed, authorized providers can ensure the quality, safety, and security of repairs for customers. And when products do reach end of life, Apple takes responsibility for recycling them safely and responsibly.
“We’re continuing to invest in ways to recover materials from our products, like Liam, our line of disassembly robots—and encouraging our customers to return products through Apple Renew, our recycling program. We’re also pioneering a closed loop supply chain where products are made using only renewable resources or recycled material to reduce the need to mine materials from the earth.”
In typical fashion, Apple claims it supports electronics recycling, but has offered few details about how it ensures materials are handled responsibly. Third-party recycling programs in the United States have been found offloading materials in dumps abroad, and even when they’re supposedly “recycled,” a lot of the rare minerals within can’t be recovered. Electronics are often “shredded,” a recycling process as destructive as it sounds that renders many materials unrecoverable.
As far as Apple products being “thin and powerful,” it’s true. To accept repairability as a standard to help consumers and the planet might mean sacrificing the exact sleek design to which we’ve become accustomed. Removable batteries might mean your iPhone has a bigger butt. Jony Ive can probably make it work.
And then there’s Liam, the ballyhooed robot that’s designed to responsibly rip iPhones apart. As far as anyone knows, it’s little more than a proof of concept: It is designed to disassemble only iPhone 6 devices, and only those that are returned directly to Apple.
Summed up, there’s an argument to be made that Apple is doing more than nothing to make electronics more sustainable, so long as those electronics are Apple products, returned to Apple facilities with little benefit to the consumer. Advocating for repair standards, meanwhile, would help the industry overall.
So, what action can we take if Apple won’t?
“As long a manufacturers remain in control of the standards, repair [issues] will not be addressed,” said Mark Schaffer, the paper’s author.
In other words, the groups responsible for drafting environmental standards need greater influence from organizations that don’t have a vested interest in screwing you over.
“An overhaul of how environmental standards are written now is really needed,” he added.
That won’t happen without significant pressure from a major organization. Perhaps one that purports to have a strong sense of green ethics. Now where could we find one of those?