Open It Up or Close the Loop – The Environment and Apple

A couple months back, Apple released this press release discussing their expansion of recycled materials in their devices, including the latest addition of certified recycled gold alongside their existing recycled metals list of aluminum, tin, cobalt, and some rare-earth elements. These things are not new, Apple has been talking about sustainability and the environment for a long time and how’s it’s doing its part to reduce its carbon footprint in the last decade. They’ve done things like using more cardboard and paper in packaging rather than plastic, making sure more recycled materials organic and otherwise are in their products, fueling all of their offices, stores, and server farms with green-fuel sources, and the (controversial) removal of the charging brick. They’ve even shown off robots like Daisy and Taz to help them disassemble and retrieve elements and components from their iDevices. These are all good things, I think we all agree upon that. It can save money for a company to re-use materials (hopefully being passed on to consumers), it can introduce new jobs, it can avoid getting raw materials from less than ideal sources, alongside all the planet saving benefits.

There is another consideration, however. In the last decade or so (arguably longer), Apple has gradually been taking devices that were relatively easy to open and install replacement components with devices with soldered on components and integrated in ways that are difficult to untangle. Some of these, like Apple’s Silicon, have come with great benefits in performance and power usage. But other ones seem petty or designed just for Apple to keep control over the devices.

That control isn’t a surprise to anyone. Part of the reason why many of us enjoy Apple products is because of how well they integrate everything together. From the construction quality, to hardware features picked for potential features, to little minute details, all these things can come through when you have one company controlling the entire experience.

But these custom parts also come at some environmental cost. In the past you could purchase a new hard drive or install it yourself. If you couldn’t, a friend of yours or local computer shop could replace it for you. But with the last decade of Mac machines, that same hard drive is tied into the board (and now the Apple Silicon chips) that you have to replace the entire thing to get it fixed. Again, there have been some major performance improvements, but it’s so much harder to replace those parts and recycle them. And when Apple stops supporting their machine 9 years after its manufacture date, that leaves machines with security problems even if they’re still good. That isn’t exclusively an Apple problem, see vendors ending driver support after only a couple of years or Windows 11 decided not to work on 3 year old hardware. But many machines may still be running otherwise fine for many users even after Apple has decided that aren’t worth supporting. Then you either have to use the Community Boot Patcher or hope for Linux to work on your machine (I say hope only because even certain processors are too new to have gotten it stable or to the point where even most Linux distros have stopped supporting them). If those components fail and users are told to buy a new machine, that sets a bad tone for users that can see others open up machines and replace parts.

Taking Full Responsibility

Originally I had a section listing some of Apple’s more reasonable defenses and arguments for and against said defenses. To be fair, some of Apple’s defenses are correct, or at least not unreasonable. The short version of this comes down to 3 things.

1: Apple says is they can get the most performance out of the machine by soldering or gluing things together, which we’ve seen most notably in their switch in their Macs to the new ARM architecture with the M1 and M2’s. And that transition to ARM has come with especially lower power draw and longer battery use times and lives, both of which are better for the environment whether you use a cleaner source of energy or not.

2: Apple says they can better recycle and repair the machine than anyone else. and generally the manufacturer of a machine is probably the one best able to do that. Not to mention they make it easier than many to get credit to trade-in old stuff or at least recycle it.

3: Societal Pressure: A lot of companies are beginning to receive pressure from people and governments to take responsibility for their products by requiring so many years of support or even being taxed or held liable for the ill effects of their products. So if Apple can be ahead of that game by recycling their products then it makes sense that they’d want to be there (though they’ll fight on other things like Lightning/USB-C).

As I said before, I went into a lot more details for this, but I decided against writing it out and putting more details to their defense because it got long and besides the point. Even for their more reasonable defenses, it doesn’t solve all the problems. I believe Apple can probably repair their machines better than most 3rd parties, and I believe they’ve got a big leg to stand on as far as full integration. But I don’t live in a city that has an official Apple store. We previously had a third party repair shop that was officially Apple licensed and certified, but they closed shop this year. If I have a hardware problem with my Apple device, I have to either send it into Apple and wait for that repair or have to travel a good three hours by car to get to a bigger city that has an official Apple store. And I don’t live out in the boonies either.

All this to say, if Apple wants to claim they should be the only ones to repair their machines, then I’ll get behind them provided they open a shop in every region they officially sell their devices and setup an Apple Store/repair shop in every major city and in other medium sized districts. They have the money to setup these shops, it would provide many jobs, and it would make it easier for customers to come in to get new devices or their existing ones repaired. If Apple isn’t willing or able to do this, then they need to open up devices and tools to make repairs easier. They should provide easier certification and guide documents if they’re concerned about individual injury and warranties.

Does this solve every problem? No. E-waste from outright broken components will still be an issue regardless of who ultimately fixes the devices. These machines eventually will die or lose support and will need to be dealt with somehow. And, if Apple is the one fixing them, they will need to address some of their pricing on individual components and repairs to be less costly. They could still retain many of the features we love about their devices while regaining some of that luster, ease of use, and environmental assistance that benefits everyone. Open it up Apple, or close the loop so cleanly that it’s super convenient and easy to get our stuff fixed.

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