Apple and Google, Set to Bring the (e)Waste

A war began this month, a war between two savvy generals — former allies turned rivals — vying to take the place of an old, creaky and formerly ruthless dictator grown lazy from decades of unfettered success and largess. The outcome of this war will change forever the way we gather, process and act on information. And the environmental consequences could be devastating.

I am of course talking about the war between Apple and Google, two companies that have been circling the remains of the Microsoft Empire for several years and have now moved in for the kill, attempting to seize control of the computing market.

They aren’t waging war by trying to gain market share in the traditional desktop and notebook markets. They’re battling by changing the way we think about some devices (the cell phone); supporting the creation of new devices (the netbook); and inventing devices out of whole cloth (the tablet).

And this is where the environmental issues come — the devices that these two companies are pouring money into (and that Microsoft is desperately trying to keep up with) are inherently disposable:

  • They are small, cheap, and ultraportable;
  • They have limited storage capacity — meaning you’ll store most of your data on the web; and
  • They have limited battery life.

Combine all of these things, and you have products that will end up in the waste stream as soon as they are no longer shiny and new.

Even more insidious, as I’ve written about before, by creating devices with non-replaceable batteries, Apple has a planned obsolescence strategy that essentially requires your iPhone to begin a slow death from the very moment you pull it out of its ultra-designed box.

But at least there are only two versions of the iPhone. Google’s strategy to dominate the cell-phone market hinges on creating free open-source software — called Android — and allowing any and all comers to develop phones with the system and offer them to any and all providers. Currently, there are more than two dozen versions of the Android phone on (or coming to) the market, including the highly sought after Motorola Droid and Google’s own Nexus One.

Most of these cell phones, including two versions of the iPhone, are under $200. Some are even free with certain contracts. This means most consumers won’t think twice about chucking them once the battery — or their cell phone contract — expires.

That means 15.8 million iPhones and millions more Android phones hitting the waste stream in the coming years.

To stem the tide of this e-waste, Apple and Google should implement robust, verifiable and free recycling programs for the devices they manufacture — and in Google’s case, the devices their software powers.

This last point is especially important, because it will be very easy for Google to shirk its responsibilities here and say, “the manufacturers should be responsible for the recycling.” However, most of those manufacturers wouldn’t be making devices without the software Google is providing.

(UPDATE: A reader notes that Apple has a pretty bullet-proof recycling program already running. I regret the error, but stand by my assertions on the disposable nature of the iPhone and smaller devices.)

But the cellphone glut just the beginning. The rollout of netbooks and tablets — small computing devices designed to fit the space between a full-size notebook and a smartphone — promises to bring even more disposable devices to market.

Google has made the most aggressive moves in this space. The company has created an absolutely ingenious operating system – Google Chrome OS – that boots up in seconds and runs only web applications. Chrome OS is designed specifically for netbooks, which Google will be pushing aggressively. Not only will they be giving the software to hardware manufacturers for free, Google will be designing and creating its own branded netbooks.

A netbook costs between $300 and $400. Google sees a world in which “you could buy 5 to put them around your house.” Right now netbooks are made on the ultracheap with generally very few environmental safeguards and at a price point where they can easily end up on the trash heap in two-to-three years.

Tablets seek to fill a similar market, but with an even smaller device that relies solely on a touch screen. Several manufacturers have rolled out unimpressive offerings during this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, but the real tablet mania is expected to hit on January 27, when Apple unveils its version of the device. And, of course, Google also has plans to manufacture a branded tablet.

With these devices coming onto market real recycling programs from Apple and Google must be brought online. But what’s our personal responsibility in all this? Well, there are several options, of course: including refusing to buy; making the devices we purchase last longer (say, by replacing your iPhone battery); or, of course, finding your own recycling center.

(Image credit: jizzon/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. For those of us who love biodiversity (I suspect there are a few like-minded readers who visit this site), the mining and subsequent use of coltan, a mineral found in cell phones represents a major problem for the Western lowland gorilla and other species. Coltan in mined in the forests of the Congo, destroying habitat for these wonderful creatures.

    Yet another reason to limit ones cell phone consumption and to recycle a phone if you need a new one.

  2. The average American family generates bagfulls of garbage every week and uses large quantities of gasoline/natural gas/electricity from coal. A phone or little computer every few years is insignificant compared to this. I guess it is too hard to do something meaningful so we will pick on Apple and Google since they are high visibility targets.

  3. Chuck,
    I agree with you on the need to reduce consumption in all areas — not just ewaste. I think my point is that this is yet another area that we need to think about as we consume and chase the latest gadgets. Also, I’m a tech blogger, so this is what I think about. Elliot’s comment above speaks to the idea that this technology is a bit more insidious than standard garbage and needs to be thought of and treated a bit differently.

    As far as “picking on Apple and Google” that’s probably a fair criticism. Certainly there are loads of manufacturers out there right now who sell a lot more cell phones and other gadgets right now. However, these companies aren’t pushing the envelope with new devices and software and creating a “need” when there may not really be one.

    Google especially is really looking to transform what devices we use with their Android and Chrome operating systems. These are specifically designed to be used across a multitude of portable devices that have a very limited shelf life. That, I think, sets a dangerous precedent and we need to think about how these devices are disposed of when their two-year shelf-life ends.

    As a final note, my big problem with Apple is that they set a timer on the life of their devices by not making the batteries easily replaceable. In order to replace a battery on any Apple product (and maintain the warranty on the product) you must bring it to Apple and pay for the battery to be replaced. To me, that is simply not acceptable.

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