Opinion: Removing the Power Adaptor and EarPods From iPhone Packaging Would Be a Responsible Move – a Designer’s Perspective.
Apple wants a circular economy for its products, but packaging and accessories are not often reused and recycled like devices. Removing the power adaptor and EarPods could reduce up to 13,454,000 kgs of e-waste while avoiding the manufacture of 160 million sets of non-recyclable plastic and reducing the carbon footprint of delivering every new iPhone.
*[Note: rather long read]*
In 2017, Apple announced a new initiative to create a “[closed loop supply chain](https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2017/04/apple-celebrates-earth-day/)”, where products are built using only renewable resources or recycled material. A goal later associated with a circular economy in their [environment webpage](https://www.apple.com/environment/).
Circular economy describes a product lifecycle model that attempts to mimic nature. Its three most fundamental principles, as [proposed by the EllenMcArthur foundation](https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy), are to design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. The idea is that all manufactured goods should be reused and recycled to the greatest possible extent.
The ultimate goal is to achieve a future where every Apple product would be made from 100% recycled material, where every part of every product—including the product itself, its packaging, products used in manufacturing, as well as accessories—would be reused or recycled. This cycle model is as opposed to the status quo—a linear model—where products, packaging and accessories are made, used, then discarded. At the time, Apple’s Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, [Lisa Jackson](https://www.apple.com/leadership/lisa-jackson/), [admitted that they did not yet know how to achieve this](https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/xwv3yj/apple-promises-to-stop-mining-minerals-to-make-iphones-it-just-isnt-sure-how-yet), nonetheless, pledged to make an effort to work towards such a system.
# Existing Progress.
In the years before, and after, Apple has made various steps to improve the recycling and reuse of both their materials and devices. From disassembly robots like [Liam](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYshVbcEmUc&feature=youtu.be) and [Daisy](https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2018/04/apple-adds-earth-day-donations-to-trade-in-and-recycling-program/), to encouraging returns through the iPhone upgrade program and trade-ins, Apple showed progress towards this goal with the promotion of recycling-enabling [subscription-like systems also used by other circular economy companies](https://gerrardstreet.nl/en/). By 2018, Apple announced that they had started using [100% recycled Aluminium in some of their products](https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/30/18042448/macbook-mac-mini-recycled-materials-2018-environmental-impact). By 2019, [100% recycled tin](https://www.pocket-lint.com/gadgets/news/apple/147815-apple-says-it-is-now-using-100-percent-recycled-tin-in-11-new-products) for solder in the main logic boards of 11 products. They also claimed to have refurbished more than 7.8 million devices and recycled more than 48,000 metric tons of e-waste in the same year.
However, when considering packaging, there are some added challenges.
Unlike the devices they protect, packaging is not often reused, and the materials they use are often not recycled effectively. The rigid structure needed to make the smooth, compact, papers and card used for Apple’s premium packaging necessitate the use of a large percentage, or a sole blend, of virgin paper—“new” paper. This is as [recycled paper often loses structure, strength and density](https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1009221125962); why it’s most often used in soft papers like office paper, toilet paper and receipts or mixed with virgin paper for lower grade secondary packaging like cereal boxes.
While trade-ins and the iPhone Upgrade program require you to return the iPhone, boxes and accessories are not typically returned even though you receive new sets. This prevents them from being recycled effectively. General recyclers cannot recover materials as effectively because they cannot optimise their processes for a specific product or material like a manufacturer can.
# iPhone Packaging, Today.
This brings us to iPhone packaging. Observing the packaging I have from the iPhone 4S to the iPhone XS Max, while the width and heights of the boxes have changed dramatically with iPhone dimensions, the depth, or thickness, hasn’t. Apart from the depth of the boxes, there’s one other thing that hasn’t changed significantly. Weight.
With all usable contents removed, leaving only the box and paperwork, the iPhone 4S box weighs approximately 194 grammes. The iPhone 5 box: 203g. iPhone 6 box: 213g. iPhone 7 box (sans paperwork): 192g. iPhone 8 Plus box: 253g. iPhone XS Max box: 240g.
By comparison, the iPhone 5—the lightest in the list—weighs [112 grammes](https://support.apple.com/kb/sp655?locale=en_MY). The iPhone XS Max—the heaviest—weighs [208 grammes](https://support.apple.com/kb/SP780?locale=en_MY). The boxes iPhones ship in, has, for almost a decade, weighed at least as much as the device itself, to almost double what the device it’s protecting weighs. Even the accessories with all their packaging—XS Max ones, none of which were counted in the box weights—only weigh about 82 grammes total.
Inside, there’s a notable transition away from plastics and a shift away from adhesives. [Apple’s 2019 environmental responsibility report](https://www.apple.com/environment/pdf/Apple_Environmental_Responsibility_Report_2019.pdf) claims that they have reduced plastic use in their packaging by 48% in three years. However, when looking at the insides of the boxes I have, it’s notable that the deepest holes are for the charging adaptor (Type G plugs). At 40mm in a 60mm box, the adaptor is easily the thickest item in the packaging. The charging cables? They’re only 10mm tall in the wrapped configuration Apple ships them in.
# What If?
So, what can be gained from removing the adaptor and earphones from the box? For starters, it reduces the weight of the accessories by over 70%, from 82 to 20 grammes—the weight of the remaining charging cables. Next, it eliminates the need for potentially 30 mm of depth in the iPhone boxes, allowing them to be (almost exactly) half the depth they have been for a decade—presumably also significantly decreasing its weight.
What does this mean? For one, it reduces the shipping emissions of each iPhone, when considering the packaging, due to weight. Taking the estimated number of iPhones shipped in 2018 ([217 million](https://www.statista.com/statistics/276306/global-apple-iphone-sales-since-fiscal-year-2007/)), removing the 62 grammes of accessories alone would contribute to the potential reduction of 13,454,000 kgs of e-waste and associated shipping emissions yearly. Moreover, it allows for twice as many iPhones to be shipped in the same volume when compared to before. Seeing that shipping by volume also matters due to the inherent fuel consumption of the transports used, this further helps reduce the environmental impact of the transportation stage in the product lifecycle.
In fact, this has been done before. [Fairphone 3 by Fairphone](https://shop.fairphone.com) ships with only the phone, a screwdriver, bumper and documentation. They pride themselves on human rights and environmental consciousness, providing their USB cable, earphone and charger separately specifically to reduce environmental impact. Nokia tried something similar in 2009 with the [N79 Eco](https://www.slashgear.com/nokia-n79-eco-sheds-charger-shaves-packaging-for-eco-cred-1630736/). The effects? A smaller and lighter package when compared to the version that shipped with a charger.
Even today, a large number of popular personal electronic devices are shipped without a power adaptor. Most commonly battery-powered audio equipment like Bluetooth headphones and speakers. Flagship premium Bluetooth headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM3, Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, Beats Studio3 Wireless and the B&O H9 3rd Gen all ship without a USB adaptor. Even B&O’s high-end Beolit 17 wireless speaker does not include a power adaptor in the box.
But what about convenience? Many of you have wondered what would happen when you need to charge your new iPhone. iPhone has used USB cables since the very beginning, and lightning since 2012. In the past 8 years, if you’ve bought an iPhone, you already have a USB power adaptor and a lightning cable. If you’ve been using Android devices, you’ll also have either a USB-A or USB-C power adaptor, if not both. If Apple includes just the lightning cable, you’d likely be able to cover both camps.
In 2020, it is estimated that there are [3.5 billion](https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/) smartphone users. This is expected to grow by 300 million in 2021. Approximately [1.5 billion](https://www.statista.com/statistics/263437/global-smartphone-sales-to-end-users-since-2007/) smartphones were sold each year between 2016-2019. Assuming a steady rate, 20% of smartphones sold next year will go into the hands of first-time users.
Reversing that statistic, 80% of you possibly already have a compatible adaptor. If evenly distributing the cumulative smartphone sales of the past 6 years, assuming they all included USB adapters, you would have enough adapters for every person on the planet with leftovers. With the maturity of the market, even cars, planes, hotels and new houses have started integrating USB power plugs to respond to our need to keep our electronic devices powered. Besides, this doesn’t take into account the fact that a portion of these new owners will likely be youth. They likely have adults in the family with existing, possibly spare, USB adaptors, especially when you consider that iPhone falls in the premium category and has users that are generally more affluent or enjoy relatively high purchasing power (globally).
And the cherry on top? [Transportation is only 5% of Apple’s carbon footprint, 74%, is in manufacturing.](https://www.apple.com/environment/pdf/Apple_Environmental_Responsibility_Report_2019.pdf) Removing the power adaptor has the potential to reduce 80% of Apple’s manufacturing needs for the 200+ million iPhone power adaptors it currently includes in the box. I think that would likely be a non-negligible figure. Also, the casing used for Power Adaptors? It’s a thermoset plastic due to safety reasons. That means it can’t be easily melted, recycled and remoulded. So every extra adaptor Apple manufactures, is one more piece of plastic that will likely not be recycled.
By not including accessories that many of us already have, Apple stands to reduce e-waste, manufacturing waste, manufacturing emissions as well as iPhone shipping emissions, all playing into the bigger picture of Apple achieving their goal of a zero-waste circular economy.
[Disclaimer, I am not affiliated with any of the mentioned companies or organisations, links are provided only to aid additional reading, many of the mentioned facts can be found in Apple’s various environmental responsibility reports, opinions are my own]