DES 40 Winter 2018
Apple 5W USB Charger: Raw Materials
Many of the products used in everyday life are often underestimated in terms of the raw materials used for manufacturing. Over the course of human history, complex commodities arose from invention and human ingenuity but as a result, less became involved in the production. Electronics are a prominent example of this phenomenon. Despite their ubiquitous use, electronic devices, gadgets, and tools could not be dissected part by part by the average person. This generalization is not applicable to countries with no access to this type of technology but for those that are immersed in it, the layperson’s knowledge of the inputs to a circuit board or a transistor would most likely be limited. This is not to say that consumers are at fault. Companies, such as Apple, tend not to publicly share their recipes and methodology for manufacturing electronic devices, which is only reasonable for business purposes. The end result is a lack of understanding of the materials and costs that are associated with a given product. Typically, life-cycle analyses are useful tools for obtaining this knowledge as raw materials, energy, and waste handling are investigated. This paper seeks to perform a life-cycle analysis on a commonly used electronic device, the Apple 5W USB power adaptor, specifically focusing on the raw materials used for component processing, assembly, sale, and waste treatment to illustrate the potential harmful effects on the environment from production, despite Apple’s attempt to reduce its environmental impact.
Although small, the most complex portion of the charger are the circuit boards, which is composed of plastic and various metals. Historically, circuit boards have reduced in size alongside human progression as dictated by Moore’s Law which predicts a doubling in electronic speed and capacity every one or two years (Mollick); the circuit boards found in Apple USB chargers are smaller than a quarter (Shirrif). Apple did not have specify their specific circuit board so the composition was based on commonly produced printed circuit boards, also known as PCBs. The main substrate on which the metals are attached onto is mainly fiberglass epoxy resin (Cavette). Epoxy resin is useful for maintaining dry circuitry due thereby providing a protective coating (American Chemistry Council). Its production consists of reacting acetone from two phenol groups. Conveniently, acetone and phenol is produced from the cumene process. When cumene is in contact with air, cumene hydroperoxide which ultimately produces acetone and phenol. However, these cumene feed streams usually contain other hydrocarbons since cumene is manufactured from gas feeds (PubChem). Though most plants aim to reduce emission of these hydrocarbons, leaks can still occur. In a source assessment of the cumene process to produce acetone and phenol, a representative plant was analyzed and although it was 80% efficient, it produced 3900 metric tons of hydrocarbon emissions (Delaney and Hughes) Assuming this was the same component used for the Apple USB charger, production would imply hydrocarbon emissions as the epoxy resin is derived from the cumene process; is worth considering that the charger is potentially causing harm to the environment in this manner. The fiberglass component is manufactured from silica sand, limestone, and boric acid (Dixit et al.). Silica sand is mainly obtained from Wisconsin and Minnesota (the main sources for the US) but is also present in large quantities in Australia and Canada (US Geological Survey). Mining silica sand involves removal of vegetation, exposing tops of sandstones, excavation, and refilling the area once collection is complete (Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey). By doing so, the land usually deteriorates due to loss of top soil, the area experiences an increase in pollution from the rubble and waste from mining, and the ecosystem is disrupted since vegetation is removed (Mishra). Regarding limestone, the largest source is found in Michigan (NASA) and is mined through stone quarries, which also impacts the environment by destruction of habitation (Hanger). However, the degree of impact depends on the location and size of quarry. The other main component of fiberglass is boric acid. US Boric acid is typically industrially produced from borate minerals from sodium borate mineral deposits within the country but Europe imports colemanite from Turkey (PubChem). In both cases, the raw material is treated with some form of acid to produce boric acid. Put together, silica sand, limestone, boric acid, and other minor components (which vary depending on the manufacturer) are fed into a furnace at temperatures ranging from 1500 to 1700 oC (Mineral Products Industry). Additionally, the circuit board contains a mix of metals. There is copper foil etched onto the PCB. Copper is extracted from chalcopyrite and is found in US, Canada, Chile, Zambia, and Peru (Dudka and Adriano). Mining chalcopyrite involves releasing sulfur dioxide and given the scale, there can be large production of acidic streams and contribution to acidic rain which is harmful to the ecosystem. On top of the copper is a tin-lead coating placed for preventing oxidation. Tin is typically found from cassiterite ore from Bolivia, Southeast Asia, and Nigeria, which is smelted (US Geological Survey). However, these tin mines require land to be bulldozed and in the process, fertile topsoil is destroyed, leaving acidic soil and inability to develop agriculture in its place. Another metal used in a PCB is nickel which is obtained from sulfide deposits of pyrrhotite or pentlandite found in Ontario or Thompson in Canada (Sainsbury). Much like copper and tin, these ores also produce sulfur dioxide with addition of toxic heavy metals. Refining these ores give large emissions of greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide reaching up to 46 tons per ton of nickel (Mudd). Another metal present in smaller amounts on the PCB is gold which is mostly mined from Alaska though other places are available such as Australia, Russia, and China (US Geological Survey). The different methods of mining gold include placer mining, separation by density difference, hydraulic mining, use of water to blast rocks and mercury to pick up gold by amalgamation, and lode mining, digging and excavating with explosives to get further down underground (Malikzai et al.). The latter two methods cause environmental damages by release of toxic compounds or destruction of the ecology. Tin-lead, nickel and gold are then electroplated onto the circuit. Past this, the circuit board is sealed with epoxy, stenciled, and cut. These are then packaged with plastic bags (Cavette). Based on the components that make up the circuit board of the charger, the environmental impact can be quite severe given that much of it involves mining and release of harmful chemical compounds. Although the PCB is small, Apple mass produces and sells enough of the charger to make an impact.
Another major component of the Apple USB charger are the resistors. These provide control of circuit board by reduction of voltage and current. The specific resistor in the charger is a fusible resistor (Shirriff) and these are commonly constructed from a ceramic rod wound into a helix. The ceramic rod is made from aluminum oxide, also known as alumina, and is obtained from bauxite ore (PubChem). The ore is subjected to the Bayer process where it is dissolved in sodium hydroxide solution in which the temperature is changed to precipitate out aluminum hydroxide which is calcined to form the anhydrous oxide. Bauxite is obtained from Africa, Oceania, and South America where bauxite is strip-mined. In the past, there were no actions taken to care for the area designated for the mine but currently there are attempts to return top soil post mine. Forested areas typically are given back 80% of the land but even this causes an ecological change on the species living in the area (The Aluminum Association). The layer of tin oxide is deposited onto the ceramic rod through vacuum deposition (Poole). Once the metal is deposited (approximately 50 to 250 nm in thickness), there is a helical cut into the rod to increase its effective length, thereby increasing resistivity. Once again, the raw materials used for the charger came with negative effects to the environment as was shown with the mining of bauxite.
Capacitors, occupying a large volume of the internal portion of the charger is the next item for life-cycle analysis. The capacitor used in the Apple 5W USB charger contains tantalum, a metal that is paired with Niobium in many alkaline granite-syenite or carbon-atite complexes found in Brazil and Canada (US Geological Survey). The tantalum ores (tantalite) are mined which are then crushed to release tantalum whereby it is dissolved in acids and extracted with other solvents. The final main part of the capacitor is the rubber used for sealing. This rubber is ethylene propene diene monomer (EPDM for short) and is a polymeric chain (Nippon Chemi-Con). The polymer is manufactured through mixing carbon blacks, obtained from sending crude oil and gas through a furnace, softeners, which is made of paraffinic oils from crude oil, and other various materials. The nature of obtaining crude oil involves drilling which already causes disruption to the environment. Furthermore, the burning of crude oil releases petrochemicals into the air, thereby increasing pollution. This would indicate that by producing the charger, crude oil is needed and therefore producing a causal negative effect on the environment.
Returning to the simplest parts of the charger, the prongs and plastic casings wrap up the component analysis of the charger. The metal prongs for the charger could not be specified but once could guess them to be stainless steel due to the color and appearance. The plastic was surmised to be polycarbonate plastic as Apple had released a statement informing the public that they would be using polycarbonates instead of PVC in their main products (Apple). There were no explicit statements about replacing the charger with polycarbonate but based on their attempt to become more environmentally friendly, it was assumed to be applicable to the charger. Production of polycarbonate plastics is an energy intensive processes requiring the polymerization reaction of Bisphenol A (BPA) and phosgene. BPA can be obtained from the production of acetone from cumene when reacted with phenol, as stated before. Phosgene comes from reacting chlorine with sodium chloride and carbon monoxide.
The assembly of the Apple 5W USB could be guessed as the least material intensive portion of the life cycle. Although Apple does not reveal the specifics of how the chargers are built, many of the parts that comprise of the unit are standalone. From disassembling the charger, most of the equipment necessary would probably include some form of screwdriver tool and adhesive to bind the parts together. More investigation is required to determine the actual production process as there were no documents or articles explaining how specifically the Apple charger is built or other generic chargers for comparison.
An important aspect of producing the charger is having the ability to ship it. It is known that Apple assembles most of its product external to the US. Foxconn is a company in Taiwan and manages the Zhengzhou facility (New York Times). Apple was revealed to have “pre-bought airfreight space” and transported using various trucks and Russian military transports (Heisler). Regarding air travel, most planes use avgas (which contain kerosene and lead containing transportation fuel. Kerosene is obtained from crude oil which can be sourced from many places (Nationwide Fuels) and is typically separated out by fractional distillation (Ashraf). It is approximated that aviation emits a quarter ton of carbon dioxide per hour of flight on average. By flying the products from China to the US (and any other location in the world), Apple is contributing to the emission of greenhouse gases, which can “thicken the Earth’s [atmosphere]” as residence of carbon dioxide amongst other gases (US EPA).
For the waste/disposal portion of the life-cycle, the Apple 5W USB charger can generally be recycled along with other electronics. According to Apple’s website on 2013, they had been accepting of faulty USB chargers and ensured customers that they would “ensure that these adapters are disposed of in an environmentally friendly way” (Apple); this USB charger takeback program only lasted until October 2013. Now it can be assumed that the chargers are simply handled with electronic waste, if they are not thrown away. The circuit boards in the chargers are potentially too small to attempt metal recovery. Resistors can be recycled by simply removing their adhesion to the PCB while capacitors typically have a limited amount of time before requiring treatment at an e-waste center (Wilson and Roberts).
As shown by the life-cycle analysis, the Apple 5W USB charger is comprised of various parts that would otherwise be unknown to someone who had not given thought to the device. Not only is the design complex but the sources and impacts of the materials that were used to create the charger varied as well. Although the charger itself is small, the impact of its production can greatly affect the environment.
Altuwair, Ibrahim Abdullah. “Environmental Performance Evaluation of Polycarbonates Production Processes” Ind. Eng. Manage vol.6, issue 3, pp. 1-11
The Alumina Association .“Bauxite” The Aluminium Association http://www.aluminum.org/industries/production/bauxite
American Chemistry Council. “About BPA: Epoxy Resins” https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Product-Groups-and-Stats/PolycarbonateBPA-Global-Group/About-BPA-Epoxy-Resins.pdf
Apple. Environmental Responsibility Report” https://images.apple.com/environment/pdf/Apple_Environmental_Responsibility_Report_2017.pdf
Ashraf, Abdullah, and Aftab, Adbudallah Al. “Distillation process of Crude oil” 2012
Barboza, David. “An Iphone’s Journey, From the Fatory Floor to the Retail Store” The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/technology/iphone-china-apple-stores.html
Browning, Lynnley “Where Apple Gets the Tantalum For Your IPhone” Newsweek http://www.newsweek.com/2015/02/13/where-apple-gets-tantalum-your-iphone-304351.html
Bousead, I. “Eco-profiles of the European Plastics Industry” Plastics Europe http://www.inference.org.uk/sustainable/LCA/elcd/external_docs/pc_31116f03-fabd-11da-974d-0800200c9a66.pdf
Cavette, Chris. “Printed Circuit Board” How Products are Made http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Printed-Circuit-Board.html
Cornwall, H.R. “Nickel Deposits of North America” Geological Survey Bulletin 1223, 1966
“Components of WEEE (e-waste)” https://ewaste.ee.washington.edu/students/electronic-autobiographies/
Day, Dwayne A., “Aviation Fuel” U.S. Centennial of flight Commission https://web.archive.org/web/20120420064213/http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Evolution_of_Technology/fuel/Tech21.htm
Delaney, J.L., and Hughes, T.W. “Source Assessment: Manufacture of Acetone and Phenol from Cumene” US EPA-600, 1979 pp. 55-59
Dixit, D., and Pal, R., Kapoor, G., and Stabenau, M. “Lightweight composite materials processing” Woodhead Publishing Series in Composites Science and Engineern 2nd edition, 2016, pp. 157-216
Dolley, Thomas P. “Sand and Gravel”, U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summariesm 2016, pp. 144-145
Dudka, Stanislaw, and Adriano, Domy C. “Environmental Impacts of Metal Ore Mining and Processing: A Review” Journal of Environmental Quality Abstract, vol. 26, No. 3, 1995, pp. 590-602
ELNA “Capacitors” ELNA http://www.elna.co.jp/en/capacitor/alumi/manufacture.html
“EPDM Membrane Production: Materials and Manufacturing Process” http://www.epdmroofs.org/attachments/epdmmembraneproductionmaterialsandmanufacturingprocesses_era.pdf
Foley, Nora K. “Environmental Characteristics of Clays and Clay Mineral Deposits” USGS
Heisler, Yoni. “The Logistics behind transporting millions of iPhones from China to stores worldwide” engadget https://www.engadget.com/2013/09/11/the-logistics-behind-transporting-millions-of-iphones-from-china/
Hodal, Kate. “Death metal: tin mining in Indonesia” The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/nov/23/tin-mining-indonesia-bangka
“Judicious Use of Aluminum Electrolytic Capacitors” https://www.chemi-con.co.jp/e/catalog/pdf/al-e/al-sepa-e/001-guide/al-technote-e-171001.pdf
LaDou, Joseph. “Printed circuit board industry” International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, vol 209. No. 3, 2006, pp. 211-219
McGoogan, Cara. “Apple pledges to stop mining for iPhone materials” Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2017/04/20/apple-pledges-stop-mining-iphone-materials/
“Metal oxide film resistor” Resistor Guide http://www.resistorguide.com/metal-oxide-film-resistor/
Mineral Product Industry. “Clay Processing” EPA https://www3.epa.gov/ttnchie1/ap42/ch11/final/c11s25.pdf
Mishra, Ashutosh. “Impact of silica mining on environment”. Journal of Geography and Regional Planning, vol 8. No. 6, 2015, pp.150-156
Mollick, Ethan R. “Establishing Moore’s Law” Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 28, No. 3, 2006, pp. 62-75
Mudd, Gavin M. “Global trends and environmental issues in nickel mining: Sulfides versus laterites” Ore Geology Reviews, vol 38, issue 1-2, 2010, pp. 9-26
NASA. “Calcite Quarry, Michigan” Earth Observatory https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=6813
“Printed Circuit Board Recycling Methods” https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-05/documents/handout-10-circuitboards.pdf
PubChem “Boric Acid”. PubChem https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/boric_acid#section=Top
PubChem. “Cumene” PubChem https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/cumene#section=Top
Ravishankar, P.S. “Treatise on EPDM” Rubber Chemistry and Technology vol. 85 issue 3, 2012 pp. 327-349
Rytuba, James J. “Mercury from mineral deposits and potential environmental impact” Environmental Geology, vol. 43, issue 3, ppp. 326-338
Sainsbury, C.L. “Tin Reosources of the World” Geological Survey Bulletin 1301, 1969
Shirriff, Ken. “Apple iPhone charger teardown: quality in a tiny expensive package” Ken Shirrif’s blog http://www.righto.com/2012/05/apple-iphone-charger-teardown-quality.html
Starkey, Natalie. “Apple to establish if tin from Bangka Island is used in iPhones” The Guardian
“Thin and thick film” Resistor Guide http://www.resistorguide.com/thin-and-thick-film/
Tosto, Paul. “MPR News Primer: Frac sand mining” MPR News https://www.mprnews.org/story/2012/03/08/frac-sand-mining-mpr-news-primer
Uglea, Constantin V., and Negulescu Ioan “Synthesis and Characterization of Oligomers” 1991, p. 103
US Geologica Survey “Mineral Commodity Summaries 2017” https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mcs/2017/mcs2017.pdf
USGS. “Niobium and Tantalum Statistics and Information” Minerals information https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/niobium/
Wisconsin Geologic & Natural History Survey “Frac sand how is It mined”
Big Impact from Small Items
When people think of Apple, they imagine the iPhone, the iPad, and the MacBooks. The things they don’t think about are the necessary accessories that come with these popular products, the power adapters that keep them running. Small, forgettable things that we lose and buy repeatedly as if they can be picked from trees. But the lifecycle of Apple’s 5W charger and its embodied energy will show how big of an impact it can make.
A lot of the raw materials found in the charger are metals and the process of mining these metal ores is the same. It starts with blasting, which involves the usage of explosives to break the rocks into pieces. There are three types of explosives used in the mining industry: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary explosives are extremely sensitive to heat, friction, impact, and electricity. They are found in blasting caps and detonators. Some examples of primary explosives are mercury fulminate, lead azide, and penthrite. Secondary explosives are also sensitive but will tend to burn faster and easier when present in relatively large quantities. An example of a secondary explosive is dynamite. Tertiary explosives need a considerable amount of energy to detonate. An example of a tertiary explosive is ammonium nitrate. After blasting, the next step is hauling, which involves taking the ores to a processing facility called a mill. There are four types of construction vehicles used: a loader, an excavator, a dump truck, and a surface drill rig. The dump truck is the vehicle used to take the ores to the mill, while the other vehicles are used to collect the ores loosened from the explosions. Some mines crush the ores on site and use conveyor belts to haul the smaller ores to a stockpile. The energy involved in mining the metal ores are chemical energy when using explosives and mechanical kinetic energy when using the construction vehicles or the crusher and the conveyor belt.
At the mill, the ores are grinded into powder by rotating large steel balls and smashing them into the ores. This powder is mixed with water and sent to the next area called the flotation cells. They mix in reagents into the previous slurry and then agitate it with paddles to form bubbles. The valuable mineral sought after in the ore attach to the surfaces of the bubbles, which float to the top. Multiple flotation cells are used in series to concentrate the minerals. The concentrate needs to be further concentrated through oxidation with high pressure steam in a machine called an autoclave. The resulting metals are then dissolved in the proper chemical solutions and then separated from carbon in large tanks. The energy involved in processing the metal ores are mechanical kinetic energy from the rotation of the steel balls and the mixing of the slurry with paddles, chemical energy from the mixture with reagents and chemical solutions at the end of the process, and thermal energy from the autoclave.
Assembly of the charger is assumed to be similar to the assembly of other Apple products. Apple works with two Taiwanese companies Foxconn and Pegatron. Back in 2012, ABC News released a video of their journalist Bill Weir getting a tour of one of Foxconn’s plants in China. The assembly line was not as automated as Bill expected and many of the workers looked to be in their late teens or early adulthood. Based on the footage, most of the assembly process and packaging relied on humans. Fast forward to 2017, Mashable released an article and a video about NYU Wagner student Dejian Zeng who spent six weeks working in one of Pegatron’s Chinese plants in 2016. He worked on the iPhone and his assembly line employed around 200 people (Foxconn’s facilities in Zhengzhou can employ up to 350,000 workers). His one and only task was to put a single screw over the speaker and fasten it to the back case of the iPhone. It seems that the assembly of Apple products has not changed over the years, possibly due to the low wages of the employees; Dejian’s wage was only 3,100 yuan a month, or roughly $450. So the assembly of the 5W charger is mostly human kinetic energy with some mechanical kinetic energy from the equipment, thermal and chemical energies from soldering the electric components to the printed circuit boards, and electrical energy to run the plant and the equipment.
The distribution and transportation of the power adapter are assumed to be similar to other Apple products. In a facility in Zhengzhou, once the products are assembled and packaged, they are sent to trucks that will go to a customs facility. Then the products that will be shipped abroad will be taken to an airport three miles away. They take flight in a Boeing 747, fly to Anchorage to refuel, and then go to Louisville, Kentucky or other points in the United States. Other facilities might send the shipments with a Boeing 777 to make a 15-hour flight from China to Memphis Tennessee without refueling. The products that will stay in China will continue to be transported in a truck along an 18-hour drive from Zhengzhou to Shanghai. The fuel for trucks is gasoline and the fuel for planes is a mixture of gasoline and kerosene. So the shipment of the 5W charger from the assembly plants to the distribution centers use chemical and thermal energies when vehicle fuels are converted to mechanical kinetic energy for the trucks’ pistons or the planes’ fan blades, use mechanical kinetic energy when the vehicles go from one destination to another, and use human kinetic energy to move products between trucks and planes and to drive and fly.
The charger uses electrical energy from 15-amp or 20-amp, 120-volt electrical sockets in most homes in the United States. The energy used in maintenance could be human kinetic energy to roll up or tie the cable when not in use. As for re-use, I am unsure if refurbished iPhones come with new or refurbished power adapters.
The recycling and waste management of the power adapter is assumed to be similar to other Apple products. When it is taken to an Apple store, it will be sent to one of Apple’s recycle contractors. They can either sell it back to a second-hand market if it is deemed okay to re-sell, or send to a recycling plant, where the components will be shredded or smelted and reduced to raw materials for other products, like window frames and furniture. This is due to Apple’s full- destruction policy to prevent fake Apple products from appearing on the secondary market. The energies involved in recycling are human kinetic energy when inspecting returned chargers, mechanical kinetic energy when shredded, thermal and chemical energies when smelting.There were many assumptions that had to be made by the end of this research paper. Not only do consumers neglect the 5W power adapters in their everyday life, so do journalists and environmentalists who criticize Apple over their main products. Even though specific information was lacking, looking at the unsustainability of the tech industry and the Apple ecosystem can imply that the environmental and social impact of Apple’s smallest charger is much bigger than people think.
Bibliography “How Metals are Mined.” Cooperative Extension Service.
Dozolme, Philippe. “Explosives Used in Mining: an Overview. The Balance. https://www.thebalance.com/explosives-used-in-mining-an-overview-2367467
Morse, Jack. “This NYU Student Went Undercover in a Chinese iPhone Factory.” Mashable. https://mashable.com/2017/04/25/iphone-factory-dejian-zeng-apple- china/#SU6SHrurtmqp
Minasians, Christopher. “Where are Apple Products Made?” Macworld. https://www.macworld.co.uk/feature/apple/where-are-apple-products-made-3633832/
Satariano, Adam. “The iPhone’s Secret Flights from China to your Local Apple Store.”
from-china-to-your-local-apple-store.htmlBarboza, David. “An iPhone’s Journey, From the Factory Floor to the Retail Store.” The New
York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/technology/iphone-china-apple-
The Home Depot. https://www.homedepot.com/c/electrical_outlets_factors _to_consider_when_selecting_electrical_outlets_HT_BG_EL
Culpan, Tim. “Where Your iPhone Goes to Die (and Be Reborn).” Bloomberg Technology. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2016-02-16/where-your-iphone-goes-to-die
“Apple’s Chinese Factories: Exclusive.” YouTube, uploaded by ABC News, 21 February 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmLsV9cSk0o
“The Mining Process at Copper Mountain Mine.” YouTube, uploaded by CopperMountainMining, 11 October 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?
15 March 2018
Apple 5W USB Power Adapter – Waste and Recycling
While not as flashy and impressive as the Apple phones and tablets, the Apple 5W USB Power Adapter wall charger is an essential part of any apple product. But beyond just keeping your electronic devices charged and amped for another day, this tiny little product also has a surprisingly large effect felt regarding its environmental impact. Although apple is more environmentally conscious than many other electronic manufactures, as seen in their public yearly reports on energy usage and their company’s push for more renewable and recyclable materials. They are still in actuality a long way from the ideal. Through examining the life cycle aspects of the waste, emissions, and environmental impact of these seemingly harmless wall chargers, we can see just how well Apple really is at being “good for the planet”.
The apple USB power adapter is made of two main parts. There is the plastic shell of the charger and the inside circuitry connected to the metal outlet prongs. For the plastic casing, it’s hard to note exactly what kind of plastic is used for the charger’s case. Given Apple’s previous history and usage of polycarbonate with a lacquer casing in their older laptops and some models of their phones , it can be somewhat assumed that the charger uses the same if not very similar materials. And if not polycarbonate (PC) alone, then at least some kind of PC plastic blended with Acrylonitrile Styrene Acrylate (ASA) or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) as is typical in many electronic devices nowadays .
The production and manufacturing of such plastics is a significant source of negative environmental impact. From start to finish, plastics release toxins into the environment. While different types of plastic resin vary wildly in their levels of chemical run off and toxic pollutants, in general, plastics release toxic chemicals into the environment through every stage: during its production, its lifetime of use, and its final disposal. According to a report on the environmental challenges of plastics by the International Journal of Waste Recourses, there are “A whole host of carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and hormone-disruptive chemicals,”  that are standard ingredients and waste products of plastic manufacturing. These carcinogenic and disruptive toxic substances are used to make nearly all types of plastics, and some of these toxins end up escaping from the manufacturing process through the form of gas or liquid run off. These types of escaped chemicals lead to damaging workers in the plastic industry, communities living near plastic manufacturing plants, and being released and damaging the global environment as a whole . Many compounds like vinyl chloride, benzene, ethylene oxide, and chromium oxide, are only a few of the key examples of toxins used and released during the production of plastic resins, causing environmental damage . All these compounds are designated by the Centers for Disease Control as toxic substances known to be human carcinogens , meaning they are substances capable of causing cancer in living tissue. Specific to PC plastic is the presence of Bisphenol A (BPA) . While hazardous in food contact situations where PC plastic goes under the process of hydrolysis (degradation due to material contact with water) releasing BPA, it is currently unknown how BPA affects the human body in contact situations not involving water and food . On top of toxic excretion and run off from the manufacturing process, there is also the consideration of fossil fuel emissions in the production of plastics.
Plastics are a synthetic product that are derived from raw materials including coal, natural gas, and most predominantly crude oils. Crude oil is the primary and most used of these fuel sources for a main raw material in plastic making, with fossil fuels occupying 99% of plastic making process . According to a study of the use of crude oils in plastics by Lulea University of Technology, they were able to calculate that the PC plastic to petrol consumption ratio came to about 0.735 Kg of plastic for every 1 Liter of petrol . This may not seem like a lot and in the overall global oil usage it actually isn’t. According to the British Plastics Federation, “Only 4% of global oil production is used for plastics,”  with the majority of oil usage being delegated to transportation, energy, heating, or is simply burnt and lost. Making the fossil fuel output comparatively one of the lesser hazardous environmental effects in the process of making plastics for the device. However, with almost all of apple’s factories being from overseas in countries like Taiwan and China, that leads to heavy distribution and transportation from across the globe , meaning Apple itself is one such company that contributes to the majority of global oil usage in transportation. This made even more problematic by the fact that apple transports their good almost exclusively by air, one of the most fuel hungry forms of transportation. They do this because as laid out by analysis Tim Worstall, transporting apple’s products this way is quicker, “boat takes 30 days while the plane takes 15” and because it’s far cheaper than having to “pay 50 times more” for the alternative form . So, while Apple does save money and time doing it through this method, it also shows how their main priority isn’t always being the most environmentally friendly, they’re still a company and they still need to reach certain profit margins. Although this gross unneeded us of transportation and fossil fuels is not great, it can be argued that going back to the negative effects of the plastics themselves revels an even greater and possibly longer lasting waste.
The most hazardous effects of plastic are in their disposal. When plastics are improperly thrown away and end up either in landfills or escape via water ways, they can end up releasing countless chemicals. into soils, streams, rivers, and oceans . Chemicals like plasticizers, antioxidants, colorants, flame retardants, and in the case of Apple, lacquer casings are what give plastics many of their desirable aspects . These chemicals are also ironically the sources of what cause the most harm when they are thrown into landfills and waterways and start diffusing into soils and rivers, leading to high levels of toxicity and affecting all terrestrial and aquatic life that come in contact with polluted environments . There is also the greatest liability when it comes to disposing plastics, which is that natural organisms take a very long time to break down the synthetic material, creating a tremendous amount of problems with how persistent the material is. The International Journal of Waste Resources estimates that only “a very small amount of total plastic production (less than 10%) is effectively recycled,”  with the rest being sent to landfills to remain for hundreds or thousands of years to decompose naturally, or to end up incinerated, where its over 90 different toxic compounds are spewed throughout the atmosphere to only later be accumulated into biotic forms and further negatively affect the surrounding ecosystem . Meaning that the plastic components are the most likely to stay the longest when compared to the other parts of the USB Power Adapter, along with protecting the other inside circuitry from decomposing, prolonging even further the detrimental effects of disposing this device in landfill.
The next main component of the charger is the inside circuity that the plastic case surrounds and protects. In a disassembly of the Apple USB power adapter it revealed that the inch by inch block has a surprisingly complex and innovative circuitry . The inside parts consist of many finite components but the major individual one is the dual Printed Circuit Board (PCB) that holds all the inside circuitry together. A PCB is a self-contained module of interconnected electronic components found in many devices with a wide variety of sizes, in this case being two connected PCBs both approximately the size of quarter . Assembled onto the specific PCB used in the charger are resistors, capacitors, transistors, integrated circuits, switches, and a large variety of other electronic components all soldered together into one compact, complex, and vital electronic device smaller than a cubic inch .
Due to the complex nature of the PCB, it also leads to a complex process for manufacturing them, which leads to the generation of many various solid and liquid wastes. A 2012 report on the manufacturing of PCBs in Taiwan revealed that solid wastes include 24 different waste parts including edge trimmings, copper clads, protection film, drill dust, drill pads, cover clads, waste boards, tin/lead dross, and many more on top of that . Of the 24 unique waste materials, only 11 are considered non-hazardous, leaving over 50% of the waste materials produced in the manufacturing of PCB harmful to the environment . The liquid waste consists of high concentrations of inorganic/organic solutions, low concentration washing solutions, and ink. The low concentration solutions and ink being fairly harmless but the high concentration solutions being either strong acids or strong bases that can lead to major chemical burns or even organ failure if inhaled in copious amounts . Frighteningly so, the majority of the materials and solutions used in the creation of PCBs are considered toxic or hazardous. But not all aspects of PCB production are so disheartening as there has actually been a decrease in the amounts of harmful elements used in their creation.
PCBs used to be made of lead, which caused health hazards in the soldering process. When soldering with lead deadly fumes are discharged from the metal into the atmosphere and would require this process to be carried out in enclosed spaces so avoid poisoning nearby areas . Being made in enclosed spaces would often cause chemical intensity of toxic lead fumes and often ended in exposing tens of thousands of workers to large numbers of deadly toxicants and carcinogens . Thankfully, since the 2006 RoHS directive (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) took effect, which restricts the use of six hazardous materials, one of which was lead, in the manufacturing of various types of electronic and electrical equipment . Ever since the implementation of this restriction, use of lead solders has heavily decreased with tin being its primary replacement . Showing that while many aspects of electronic manufacturing are quite literally toxic, there is still some hope with slow but needed improvements in safety concerns, although the same can’t quite be said about the waste management and disposal of these circuit boards.
PCBs can cause a variety of adverse health effects if not disposed of or recycled correctly. The large assembly of parts that make up the PCB are what make it complicated to recycle and dispose of in an efficient and safe way. Ironically, PCB becomes a more serious health and environmental hazard when it is recycled without proper regulations as opposed to just dumping it into the landfill . Mismanaged recycling attempts can lead to the release of a large number of pollutants into soils and waterways that shown in a 2011 study by the Institute of Physics could lead to increased “[levels] of Interleukin-8 (IL-8), a key mediator of inflammatory response, and Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), chemically reactive molecules that can cause extensive damage in excess” . The only seeming upside to all of this is the fact that the glass-epoxy base of PCBs are actually green and considered to be bio-degradable . This however does not make up for the intrusive and special heavily regulated recycling facilities needed in order to properly recycle these circuit boards in a sustainable and ecofriendly way. Luckily, Apple itself does have its own advanced, regulated, and effective recycling system in place.
Thoughtfully and consciously Apple provides a recycling service for their products, allowing customers to turn in their old apple devices for credit towards their next purchase. The service accepts almost any Apple products old and new, and they accept more than just old laptops and phones but also the smaller accessory devices like earpods and in this case iPhone USB power adapters . According to apple the process involves disassembling the device and carefully and systematically removing the metals, glass, and plastics from each other to be reused in future products. The process involves removing the plastic components and then the most complicated part of magnetically disconnecting and sorting the metal components of the PCB. While Apple does not provide an in-depth procedure of how they recycle circuit boards, the general procedure can be observed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency who states that unusable circuit boards are chopped into a powder and separated into fiberglass and precious metal in a process known as “fire assay.” This exact procedure and area of the recycling industry does not have information readily available as it is seemingly considered to be a valued trade secret . Apple claims that its rigid and exact recycling process is so specific to Apple products that any other brand’s devices can’t intermingle in the system and why recyclers build Apple its own dedicated facilities [20[. Just to show off exactly how efficient said system is, Apple itself claims that it has an impressive average material recovery rate up to 90% of the product’s original weight .
In conclusion, while Apple has a very secret but highly efficient recycling system that lives up to their claims of being the leading tech company in ecofriendly design. It doesn’t take away from that fact that almost every stage of production and manufacturing of even one of Apple’s smallest devices still produces massive amount of carcinogenic pollutants and hazardous waste materials in both the creation of their plastics and circuit boards. Further complicated by fact that Apple clearly isn’t trying to always take the greenest of approaches as they still prioritize speed and profit margins in focusing mainly on air transportation over boat or more local distribution methods. These all showing that while Apple does have aspects that help define them as one of the most environmentally aware tech companies out there, they also still fall into the same trappings as others with being a company first that needs to make money.
1. Cohen, Peter. “Even the IPhone 5c's Plastic Is Better - Here's Why.” IMore, IMore, 13 Sept. 2013, www.imore.com/even-apples-plastic-better-about-iphone-5cs-polycarbonate-back.
2. Covestro AG Communications. “Polycarbonates in Electronics, IT and Communication.”Plastic for Electronics, IT and Communication | Covestro, 26 Feb. 2018, www.plastics.covestro.com/en/Applications/Electronics-IT-and-Communication.
3. Koushal, Vipin, et al. “Plastics: Issues Challenges and Remediation.” OMICS International, OMICS International, 10 Feb. 2014, www.omicsonline.org/open-access/plastics-issues-challenges-and-remediation-2252-5211.1000134.php?aid=23449.
4. “Pollution and Toxins: General.” About Compostables: Traditional Plastics: Pollution and Toxins | World Centric, 14 Nov. 2012, worldcentric.org/about-compostables/traditional-plastic/pollution.
5. “The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Feb. 2018, www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/cancer/npotocca.html.
6. Rogers, Tony. “Creative Mechanisms Blog .” Everything You Need To Know About Polycarbonate (PC), 21 Apr. 2016, www.creativemechanisms.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-polycarbonate-pc.
7. “British Plastics Federation.” Oil Consumption, BPF, 15 Apr. 2008, www.bpf.co.uk/press/oil_consumption.aspx.
8. Gervet, Bruno. THE USE OF CRUDE OIL IN PLASTIC MAKING CONTRIBUTES TO GLOBAL WARMING . 2007, THE USE OF CRUDE OIL IN PLASTIC MAKING CONTRIBUTES TO GLOBAL WARMING .
9. Minasians, Christopher. “Cook Sidesteps Question after Trump Promises Apple Plants in US.” Macworld UK, 18 Sept. 2017, www.macworld.co.uk/feature/apple/where-are-apple-products-made-3633832/.
10. Worstall, Tim. “Why Apple Sends All IPhones And IPads By Air: It's Cheaper.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 24 Dec. 2013, www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/12/24/why-apple-sends-all-iphones-and-ipads-by-air-its-cheaper/#7cdf3ac342d0.
11. Borque, Martin. “PTF: ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS.” Ecology Center, 29 July 2013, ecologycenter.org/plastics/ptf/report3/.
12. Shirriff, Ken. “Ken Shirriff's Blog.” Apple IPhone Charger Teardown: Quality in a Tiny Expensive Package, 19 May 2012, www.righto.com/2012/05/apple-iphone-charger-teardown-quality.html.
13. Wilson, Denise. “Electronic Components.” WEEE Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, UW Electrical Engineering, 26 Jan. 2018, ewaste.ee.washington.edu/students/electronic-autobiographies/.
14. Cavette, Chris. “Printed Circuit Board.” How Products Are Made, 18 Jan. 2006, www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Printed-Circuit-Board.html.
15. LaDou, J. “Printed Circuit Board Industry.” International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health., U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16580876.
16. Szałatkiewicz, Jakub. Metals Content in Printed Circuit Board Waste. vol. 23, ser. 2365-2369, Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements, 2014, Metals Content in Printed Circuit Board Waste.
17. Institute of Physics. “'E-Waste Pollution' a Threat to Human Health, New Research Suggests.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 31 May 2011, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110531084958.htm.
18. “Renew.” Apple, 8 Oct. 2010, www.apple.com/au/recycling/computer/faq.html.
19. “Au, Pt, Pd by Fire Assay.” Au, Pt, Pd by Fire Assay | Mining | SGS, SGS SA, 29 Nov. 2011, www.sgs.com/en/mining/analytical-services/geochemistry/precious-metals/au-pt-pd-by-fire-assay.
20. Broussard, Mitchel. “Apple's 'Rigid and Exacting' Recycling Processes Focus on the 'After-Life of an IPhone'.” Mac Rumors, 17 Feb. 2016, www.macrumors.com/2016/02/17/apples-recycling-processes-after-life-of-an-iphone/.
21. “Apple Recycles Responsibly.” Apple - Recycling - Apple Recycles Responsibly., Apple, www.apple.com/recycling/includes/recycles-responsibly.html.
22. Triantafyllou, Maria K., and Tom J. Cherrett. “The Logistics of Managing Hazardous Waste: a Case Study Analysis in the UK Retail Sector.” International Journal of Logistics Research and Applications, vol. 13, no. 5, 2010, pp. 373–394.
23. Martin Larbi. “Environmental Stewardship and Corporate Social Responsibility: Implication for Consumers’ Resistance to Negative Information. The Case of Apple in China.” Risk Governance &Amp; Control: Financial Markets &Amp; Institutions, vol. 4, no. 4, 2014, pp. 39–47.
24. Staff, NPR. “After Dump, What Happens To Electronic Waste?” NPR, NPR, 21 Dec. 2010, www.npr.org/2010/12/21/132204954/after-dump-what-happens-to-electronic-waste.
25. Elert, Emily. “Who Supplies Apple With All Those Parts? [Infographic].” Popsci, 21 Feb. 2013, www.popsci.com/technology/article/2013-02/who-supplies-apple-all-those-parts-infographic.
26. Maestri, Luca. Environmental Responsibility Report . Apple, 2017.
27. Staff, Apple. “Environment - Resources.” Apple, Apple, Apr. 2016, www.apple.com/environment/resources/.
28. Worstall, Tim. “Why Apple Sends All IPhones And IPads By Air: It's Cheaper.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 24 Dec. 2013, www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/12/24/why-apple-sends-all-iphones-and-ipads-by-air-its-cheaper/#52aa524942d0.
29. Barboza, David. “An IPhone's Journey, From the Factory Floor to the Retail Store.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/technology/iphone-china-apple-stores.html.
30. Vazquez, Akaena. In Depth Analysis of Cell Phone Chargers : a Study of Components, Circuitry and Materials and the Recycle-Ability and Environmental Impacts. 2006.
“Copper.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Mar. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copper.
“RotoMetals Tin Metal Cut Pieces 99.9% Premium Grade.” Amazon, Roto Metals, www.amazon.com/RotoMetals-Metal-Pieces-99-9-Premium/dp/B00826A996.
“Nickel.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Mar. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel.
“What's New.” Gold Purity Guide: Difference between 24k, 22k and 18k Gold | My Gold Guide, www.mygoldguide.in/gold-purity-tips-difference-between-24k-22k-18k-gold.
“Crystal Clear Epoxy Resin Kit 2 Gallons ( 1 Gal Resin and 1 Gal Hardener ).” East Coast Resin, eastcoastresin.com/products/crystal-clear-epoxy-resin-kit-2-gallons-1-gal-resin-and-1-gal-hardener.
Plain Transparent Fiberglass Sheet Rs 140/Kilogram. www.indiamart.com/proddetail/plain-transparent-fiberglass-sheet-15161806255.html.
“Vierge Polycarbonate Granule/Pc Recyclé Pellets,Pc Plastique Matière Première Pour Bouteilles D'eau - Buy Product on Alibaba.com.” Www.alibaba.com, french.alibaba.com/product-detail/virgin-polycarbonate-granule-pc-recycled-pellets-pc-plastic-raw-material-for-water-bottles-60424408992.html.
admin@iph. “Apple Begins Offering Replacements for Bogus USB Power Adapters.” IPhone Hacks | #1 IPhone, IPad, IOS Blog, 5 Aug. 2013, www.iphonehacks.com/2013/08/apple-begins-offering-replacements-for-bogus-usb-power-adapters.html.
“Apple 5W USB Power Adapter.” Apple, www.apple.com/ca_smb_148489/shop/product/MD810LL/A/apple-5w-usb-power-adapter.
“Apple IPhone Charger Teardown.” Ken Shirriff's Blog, www.righto.com/2012/05/apple-iphone-charger-teardown-quality.html.