Apple Is Creating An E-Waste Problem

What happens when you change one port? Quite a lot, actually. Apple introduced the 30-pin iPod port on April 28, 2003. That makes the technology – a fairly streamlined solution for 2003 – nine years old and, thanks to the iPhone’s popularity, essentially ubiquitous. Now, however, as news leaks about either a 19- or 9-pin overhaul of the technology, there’s something important to consider: the install base of 30-pin devices is wild and deep and a simple change could create an e-waste problem if not properly handled.

To be clear: this new pin layout is coming and it’s coming soon. Whether it arrives in this generation or the next still remains to be seen, the sources I reached out to agreed that the switch was imminent.

Apple has sold over approximately 610 million devices with a 30-pin dock connector. There are no hard numbers on iPod dock sales available, but analysts estimate $2 to $3 billion in sales on iPod accessories per year. These are back of the envelope calculations, but assume a fourth of those are $100 docks – some are less, some are much more. That gives us about 5 million docks a year over nine years. That’s 45 million devices in essentially perfect working order that will be partially obsoleted by this move.

“Just imagine how many hotel rooms are fitted with alarm clocks that have a 30-pin dock connector,” said Arman Sadeghi, CEO of AllGreenRecycling, an e-waste handler. “Doing away with the 30-pin dock connector without developing any kind of backwards compatibility option would cause millions of pieces of accessories to become obsolete prematurely. Currently, there are tens of thousands of different devices such as chargers, alarm clocks, docking stations and other devices that work with the 30-pin connector. If this connector was replaced, it would cause a slow but very steady flow of those items coming out of use and into the ewaste stream.”

In short, Apple would relegate a great number of iPod docks to the scrap heap. Arguably, the vast majority of users, especially users using more expensive docks that connect to home entertainment systems and speakers, would invest in a small adapter that will convert a 30-pin jack to the smaller model, but a fraction of those will relegate those old docks to the junk pile. Once the 30-pin is phased out, however, there’s the secondary problem of obsolete iPods.

“The obvious problem will be with people throwing out old accessories but there is another issue as well,” said Sadeghi. “The value of Apple devices with the old connector will drop as well which will cause a large wave of those items entering the eWaste steam as well. iPods and other small devices that people have had for many years will start becoming less desirable in favor of newer versions that will have the same connector as their new iPhone. This effect may, in fact, prove to be a bigger generator of eWaste than the obsolete accessories.”

This sort of move isn’t new, but I suspect that this might be the first major mass exodus from one port architecture to another since serial connections gave way to USB and even that move took years to complete. Apple is notorious for railroading users into technologies although they usually pick the tech that eventually proves to be the winner (there’s a reason there weren’t Compact Flash card readers on earlier MacBooks before the addition of the SD card slot.) Where Apple is at fault is in the speed with which they’re going to push this through. They will sell millions of iPhones and millions of adapters, and the new port will also revitalize the stagnant accessories market. But it will also encourage long-time users to “upgrade” their docks to support the new standard (or at least spend $10 on a compatible adapter).

It’s also not Apple’s fault that accessory makers hitched their wagon to the Apple star. There was and is a lot of money to be made. But this change will change things considerably and the trash and recycling it will generate is has the potential to be more than impressive.

The real impact can be seen as negligible. Docks are made of plastic and a few magnets. In a perfect world those docks would end up at an ewaste location where they will be recycled into new products or they will end up in the garage sale and secondary market, used by millions who just don’t want to or can’t upgrade.

But in a world of increasingly scarce resources, it’s an interesting thought exercise to see what a minor change in on port on a popular phone can do to an entire ecosystem of accessories. Apple is lucky that an industry made hardware solely for their devices. Now we’re about to see what happens when that industry – and the consumers who bought into that constellation of accessories – suddenly has to shift direction.