Let’s talk about…Universal charging

Apple’s new charger port to help reduce e-waste – not rushing to buy their new phone would help more!

‘New, only marginally upgraded phones keep being rolled out. This constant unnecessary influx of new models from manufacturers has helped created a culture encouraging frequent upgrades and disposability’

The first phone I remember having is a pink Nokia swivel phone, which had originally belonged to my older sister.

I adored it for very pre-adolescent reasons; it was brightly coloured, it had a little bar that let you attach phone charms, and it had both jewel quest and the snake game pre-installed. I had also decided it was very high-tech because it had a half-decent camera and an internet browser app – which presumably loaded at snail-pace, but I can’t honestly say, since I strictly avoided it (I was convinced just the act of opening it would cost me €50 in precious 02 credit).

Anyway, my brief period as a Nokia user was just that: brief. Evidently the stage at which I became old enough to get a phone didn’t come long before the point smartphones succeeded in edging their keypad-ed predecessors out of fashion for good.

Since then of course, the smartphone has become utterly ubiquitous – now in use for everything from communication to navigation, playing music to taking photos, reading the news to paying at the till. It’s weird to think that such a relatively short amount of time rendered more traditional mobiles, like that pink Nokia, utter relics compared to modern smartphones, but it’s inevitable considering the massive amount today’s phones are capable of.

In fact, it seems like we’ve ticked off all the possible things to use a smartphone for… and yet, the upgrades keep coming. And as much as the last decade or so saw a crazy amount of advancements overall, in more recent years, with so little left to conquer, new phones never really feel significantly different to the ones already on the market.

This is something Apple in particular catches a lot of flak for, a common jab being that every few months, Apple re-releases what is essentially the very same iPhone as their previous one – just slightly bigger and with an ever-so-slightly better camera (and several hundred euro more of a price difference, of course).

Last week however, Apple announced something notably different when unveiling the iPhone 15. In a departure from their usual practice, future iPhones will no longer have Apple’s distinctive Lightning charger ports. Instead, they will adopt the universal USB-C connector, which is already standard across most other smartphones.

Changing chargers may not seem like a huge deal, but it is notable, considering that Apple’s Lightning ports have been a consistent feature of their devices for years, and not adopting USB-C until now was a deliberate choice that had many pros for them. It set them apart from pretty much all other manufacturers, and perhaps most significantly, having their own proprietary port allowed them to control the licensing and sales of cables and accessories for their products, which contributed considerably to their revenue.

Given the Lightning port’s advantages for Apple, it’d be natural to wonder why the change is being made at all. And the reason is that it was not as much Apple’s decision as their only real option.

The EU recently passed legislation insisting that from the end of next year, all phones and other small devices sold within the EU must be compatible with the USB-C charging cables. This comes after the European Parliament previously stated that it had spent years trying to get companies to voluntarily agree to rely on one type of connector to no real avail.

There are several reasons why the EU pushed for universal charging with USB-C, and a lot of these directly benefit the consumer. Most obviously perhaps, having a one-size-fits-all charger that works for all devices will be worlds more convenient for daily life. Also, compared to other connectors, USB-C is much faster (for both charging and transferring data) and extremely reliable. A universal charger will also be a huge money-saver; according to the EU, making the switch will ultimately help consumers save up to €250 million annually “on unnecessary charger purchases”.

But beyond consumer interests, one of the main motivators for universal charging was reducing e-waste. According to the European Parliament, piled together, unused and discarded chargers add up to about 11,000 metric tons of e-waste in Europe annually. And although getting rid of Lightning cables will presumably lead to a temporary uptick in waste as people get rid of their old chargers, in the long run moving to a universal charger will undoubtably help reduce e-waste. Standardisation could also help improve methods to recycle chargers that get thrown out in the future.

However, universal charging can only do so much: chargers only account for about 0.1% of the 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste generated each year. E-waste is a much larger problem, and can only be effectively tackled by looking at its more significant contributing factors – one major one being consumerism.

As mentioned earlier, despite the fact that phones aren’t evolving at the same pace they did in the past, new, only marginally upgraded phones keep being rolled out. This constant unnecessary influx of new models from manufacturers has helped created a culture encouraging frequent upgrades and disposability. And not only do consumers not really benefit from these ‘upgrades’ (because these improvements are so minor compared to the price being paid), but it results in so much unnecessary waste.

Yes, Apple’s new port will ultimately help reduce e-waste, but not rushing to buy their newest phone for the sole sake of having their newest phone would help a whole lot more.

All said, I think that ultimately the success of this EU mandate in getting companies to adopt USB-C, after years and years of trying to get companies to comply voluntarily, is encouraging. It not only sets an important precedent for regulating tech companies around e-waste, but also for regulating tech companies in general – both of which are concerns that are more important now than ever. Hopefully it is indicative of much more change to come.