Sustainability, repairability, and the upgrade lifestyle

Recently, in part due to some unfortunate hardware failures and the associated cost and effort of repairs, I’ve been thinking much more about what the true costs of using Apple devices – or, more generally, modern computing devices such as smartphones – really are. We take for granted that we have these powerful computers in our lives. We use them extremely wastefully: many of us upgrade our devices each year for no real need besides having a better camera or a faster, smoother experience.

This isn’t a new topic and there are a lot of cliches around it. Some of them hide kernels of truth. For example, it’s often mentioned how we landed on the moon with dramatically less computational power than we carry around in our pockets, usually as a sign of how amazing our devices are and how we should be willing to pay the token price that the manufacturers ask for them. Less mentioned is how we are actually using that increased power, and how inefficient our software has become. Why has it become necessary to purchase brand new M1 hardware to make our applications responsive? Why is it that our phones start to feel sluggish a few years after release, for no apparent increase in functionality? Most of it is wasted. (Don’t get me started on how sad it is that Electron actually does fill a niche in our computing landscape, and the waste associated with its use.)

Another: 56k dialup modems are a thing of the past, right? Most of us remember the screeching, whining sound that was the gateway to the internet before we got our broadband connections. Fortunately for us that’s long gone, replaced by silent, immediate, very fast internet access so that we can stream our movies, our music, and our friends over incredible distances. We never see how much electricity those networks use, nor how it has created a massive digital divide between those who have super-fast connections and the rest of the world. I recently decided to break out my XBox for a gaming session with a friend, and had to reschedule because it forced me to download 64 gigabytes of updates. In what world is that reasonable? On my 40Mbps connection it took a substantial portion of the night before I was able to even open my game. I’m on what would be considered “fast” broadband anywhere outside of the Bay, Korea, or Japan and I’m already excluded; what about the rest of the world?

There’s also the ecological and human impact of the devices themselves to consider. When we discard our phones to buy new ones we are contributing to a massively wasteful extraction of finite resources which often winds up in a landfill. These can sometimes wind up fueling conflicts in resource-rich regions like the DRC. Downstream, the assembly of devices is also routinely associated with human rights abuses, as is e-waste processing. E-waste is the fastest-growing domestic waste stream, in part because it’s difficult to recycle electronics and because we just use so many devices and discard them while they still have life left.

One of the best ways to reduce waste, if you can manage it, is to run your devices into the ground with use. When something breaks, you fix it and continue using that same device. This way you avoid paying the upfront costs of the existing materials and production energy spent on making it. But what if you can’t repair it yourself? Well, you have a rough decision ahead. Maybe you can send it in to Apple, as I did with my laptop recently. If they decide that they can actually service the machine – hope you didn’t do any unauthorized repairs – it may cost you much more than you’d expect or want to pay, especially if the issue is one caused by normal use. It may be so expensive that it is easier to justify buying a totally new device.

In my case, the display on my 2016 MacBook Pro turns off entirely if the display is opened more than 90 degrees. Apparently this is a common issue caused by normal use, where the display cabling experiences fatigue from opening and closing the laptop. Apple is notorious for having hard-to-repair devices, and this is not a fix I could perform despite my above-average electronics skills and toolset. Off to Apple it goes, in a cardboard box surrounded by plastic packaging, shipped across continents to be repaired by someone with better access to their arcana.

If the same failure had occurred on an IBM ThinkPad it would be trivial to fix. Ok, maybe not trivial, but it’s not hard: here’s the iFixit guide. Anyone with average eyesight, dexterity, and organizational skills should be able to do this. Why is it so hard on a Mac? I think part of the answer is that Apple doesn’t really care about what happens after they sell a machine, beyond a token gesture towards sustainability with their recycling program and changes to their packaging. Certainly they don’t care about the first parts of Reduce, Reuse, and only afterwards Recycle enough to design towards them.

To be clear, other manufacturers aren’t blameless here by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a lot of guilt to pass around. I’m focusing on Apple here because this is an Apple forum, and I use Apple products; it’s my conscience that’s itching. I don’t have answers for these issues and I’m going to continue to use my Apple devices until they go down for good. Mostly I’m posting because this is becoming more and more prominent in my mind and I’m curious about what you think about it.

As Apple devices become more integrated and harder to repair, their lifetime value also goes down; what do you think about the return on investment we get from the newer designs? Does the impact of your devices factor into your buying decisions? For the hosts, what are your thoughts on your role in driving people towards the latest and greatest devices?

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modal lifespan of a laptop here is 5 years

I tend to keep my devices for a long time, regardless of new features. For example, I bought an iMac in 2019 and I´m planning to keep it for a decade. That means that during that time, I’ll do my best to take care of it and repair it as long as I can. Although new gadgets with its new shiny features are alluring, I believe that’s important (for me) to be ecologically and finantially responsible.

The breaking point in order to upgrade tends to be when hardware becomes obsolete as far as software and operating system goes. Or if it becomes a nuisance to use it. For example, if a computer starts taking a long (and I mean very long) time to boot, I feel the itch to upgrade.

I agree that digital influencers promote very fast upgrade cycles. But it’s up to us as listeners to reflect upon their influence and decide what’s best for us.

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These issues do worry me, and about the only mitigating circumstances is that I’m retired and 72 so it doesn’t matter as much.

I got my first home computer in 1979 (and first “personal” work computer in 1974) and at that time the technology was moving so fast that I never expected to get more than a few years of use out of anything. But frankly, now the computers really don’t get obsoleted anymore.

However now obsolescence is planned and enforced. I still use two 2009 and two 2012 Mac minis. The only things that ever failed on them were hard disk drives, which were easily replaced. Now every repair on a new Mac basically needs to be done by Apple, and if it’s over 7 years old you are most likely out of luck. One also reaches the point, around the same 7 years, that macOS upgrades are no longer available nor are security patches. So these four minis and a 2010 MacBook Air my wife has are all living on borrowed time. And in two years time, I estimate, the Apple Silicon Macs which only run the future latest macOS that no longer will come with Rosetta, this will be a major death knell for hardware and software alike.


This is something I think about quite a lot and take some effort to mitigate my impact. I’m certainly no angel though!

My first thought is that as hardware has matured, the drive to upgrade has reduced significantly. It used to be that owning a Windows machine one or two years out of date made my apps and games sluggish; the pace was just so blindingly fast. Now, the technological improvements are there, but they are more like toppings than necessities. A 10 year old computer can run basic word-processing, number-crunching and web-surfing very nicely for a typical user. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago.
My 13" MBP is about 5 years old. My neice was about to buy a new, low cost computer and wanted advice. I noticed that my old machine was just as good as what she was looking at, so I gave her mine and bought a shiny M1. Ok, so it’s not that I’m all heart or anything, but it’s a sign of how hardware can last a long time.
My sister is still very happily using a Mac Mini I passed on around 5 years ago.

Anyway, one of the reasons I am happy to pay Apple’s prices is that I believe the company is striving to improve things. Yes, the products are smaller than absolutely necessary and yes they are difficult to repair, but as far as I can tell Apple is leading the industry towards better sustainability, better control of up-stream and down-stream process, and less product waste.

Many people commented on Apple being greedy by getting rid of the power brick for phones, for example. But Apple chooses the cost of materials in the machine. They choose the cost of purchase. They have the option to price things however they want. If they thought a power brick was needed, they could charge for it. If they wanted to be greedy they could hike the price in any number of less obvious ways. I prefer to take them at face value, and see that removing the power brick helps the environment.

Anyway, long story short, keep your machine as long as possible. Hope that your machine needs fewer repairs over its lifetime than an alternative machine and send it off when it does. And don’t purchase tech you don’t need. Oh, and avoid using apps like Chrome that use energy with willful negligence.

Selling computers that are upgradable and repairable would do more for the environment in 5 years than not including power bricks for the next 50. (IMO)

I purchased 70 iMacs in 2009 when we started moving from Windows to Mac. When I retired in 2018 60 were still in service. (Thanks to users only needing a browser and email to do their job in the latter years). Many of those had received ram upgrades, and around 10 had their hard drives replaced. All the work was done by me or a third party shop.

That kind of reliability helped offset the “Apple Tax” in those early days.

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