Since Apple’s release of the AirPods in 2016, many University of New Hampshire (UNH) students no longer appear to be “plugged in.” The popular wireless earbuds quickly replaced many users’ EarPods, Apple’s previous wired version of the headphones. Meanwhile, those same technological trends are contributing to e-waste in the era of climate change.
According to AppleInsider.com, 35 million consumers purchased a pair of AirPods in 2018, valued at $159 each according to Apple’s website. Per Fortune.com, Apple is predicted to reap $8 billion revenue from the Bluetooth device in 2019 alone.
Apple reached its goal of 100 percent renewable energy production in 2018, and intends to eliminate waste sent to landfills, as stated in Apple’s 2019 Environmental Sustainability Report. Dr. Jordan Coulombe, a UNH Ph.D. alum who studied history with a specialization in environmental history, questions the seriousness of Apple’s claim to sustainability, with his biggest concerns tied to the production of the Bluetooth earbuds.
Technology is typically associated with limiting waste rather than creating waste, Dr. Coulombe noted in a phone interview. In some cases, however, the opposite is true. A UN January 2019 press release found that 50 million tons of electronic and electrical waste, better known as e-waste, is produced per year. For comparison, every commercial airline produced weighs less than 50 million tons. Of the 50 million tons of annual e-waste, only 20 million tons are formally recycled. The other 30 million tons are either informally recycled or put into landfills contaminating soil and groundwater.
Formal and informal recycling differs in their processes. Informal recycling does not allow for toxin control, according to DW.com. Most informal recycling is done by hand in developing countries. Workers are exposed to the hazardous substances that e-waste contains like “mercury, lead and cadmium.” The UN’s press release added that annual e-waste is valued at over $62.5 billion, greater than the GDP of the majority of countries, such as Afghanistan, Belize and Lithuania.
One cause of e-waste stems from what Dr. Coulombe calls “planned obsolescence,” or a purposeful lifespan of a product. This intended lifespan forces consumers to purchase more and more of the product.
“Apple is kind of the poster child for planned obsolescence – this idea that we are going to make products that last for three, maybe four years…and [then] you’ll need to replace them,” he said.
In Apple’s 2019 report, the company claims its products are “built to last as long as humanly possible” by design, aided by iOS updates and repair. Apple also introduced a “Trade it in” program aimed at “help[ing] the planet out.”
The Ellen MacArthur Fund’s “Towards a Circular Economy: Business Ration for an Accelerated Transition” considers a circular economy as a solution to Dr. Coulombe’s “planned obsolescence.” Rather than creating a product with a purposeful lifespan, a circular economy is intended to eliminate waste completely. Finite materials that are difficult to obtain and expensive to produce would be controlled – what would be inputted into the economy would not out-putted as waste, but as reusable material. In a perfect model, there are no negative externalities. It is “restorative and regenerative by design”.
Apple has adopted ideas from the circular economy model. The 2019 report states that Daisy the robot can deconstruct 15 versions of the iPhone, recovering a portion of the finite materials used during construction. These finite materials include aluminum, cobalt, copper, rare earth elements, steel, tin and tungsten. There is no Daisy for AirPods, though, as Dr. Coulombe said, “the issue with AirPods is they’re next to impossible to dispose of because of the way they are constructed…the irony of AirPods is that they are literally glued in a way so that you cannot take them apart, and so that they’re made to basically become trash.”
Apple also claims in its report to have refurbished over 7.8 million devices, contributing to the 48,000 metric tons of e-waste in 2018 that the company recycled.
The trend of AirPods is partially driven by the idea of “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” a notion that one must have the latest and greatest form of a product.
Sophomore hospitality major Evan Shaw said, “there’s definitely some status associated with [AirPods]…there are a lot of rich kids jokes,” in an interview.
Dr. Coulombe associates this notion with the development of the automobile in the 20th century, although he doesn’t think that it’s “unique” to this era: “people fundamentally like to use objects and materials to try to differentiate themselves. Materialism is ingrained in human society.” The consequences of materialism become greater as the production of goods have a greater environmental impact.
Shaw purchased his AirPods after noticing the trend at the beginning of 2019. He had borrowed a friend’s pair for a day and was impressed with the sound quality: “[they] beam the music right into your head.” He also “loves the convenience” of AirPods, having not realized the frustration of coiling his earbud wires.
Sophomore English and international affairs major Olivia Marnell also expressed “jealous[y]” at the site of others using AirPods before she bought her own.
Marnell had never heard of the term e-waste, and sophomore animal science pre-vet major Rhiannon Emerson can attest to the idea that education has hardly helped her gain a better sense of consumer consciousness. She noted that she has never been taught how to recycle outdated technology. She said that she sees signs that say, “Recycle Your Device Here” while shopping at the mall, but she doesn’t “actually know how to…use the machine. Some of them are like ‘Get Money Back,’” she added. Shaw said that recycling electronics had never occurred to him.
Apple is not the only company found guilty of planned obsolescence but did face a class action lawsuit after revealing that it slowed down outdated versions of the iPhone in 2017, according to Forbes.com.
“From a business standpoint it’s brilliant…but from an environmental standpoint it’s obviously devastating,” Dr. Coulombe said.