Does Apple's New Lightning Connector Skirt EU Environmental Agreement?

Apple seems to be following the letter of the law of a 2009 European Union agreement designed to reduce environmental waste by standardizing its iPhone connectors to Micro-USB.  But does the iPhone 5's new Lightning connector comply with the spirit of the agreement?

The 2009 agreement specifically urges signatories to make sure that every mobile phone sold within the European Union be charged with a common charger. The common platform the phones would use would be Micro-USB, specifically Micro-USB configured with the 2009 CENELEC EN 62684 and ETSI EN 301489-34 standards.

By 2011, pretty much every major phone maker - including Apple - had signed the agreement, committing the companies to Micro-USB as a power-charging standard. So, with the new iPhone 5, where is Micro-USB?

For EU customers, it turns out, it will be in the form of a special Lightning to Micro USB adapter, available for an optional purchase in EU-based Apple stores. This will enable users with Micro-USB chargers to still use them for their new iPhone 5.

And, apparently, this is all kosher with the letter of the agreement:

"In order that compatibility of as many Mobile Phones as possible with a Common EPS may be enabled, if a manufacturer makes available an Adaptor from the Micro-USB connector of a Common EPS to a specific non-Micro-USB socket in the Mobile Phone, it shall constitute compliance to this article," the memorandum states.

Apple's new Lightning connector is facing resistance in the United States as well: See iPhone 5's Lightning Connector Is A Bigger Deal Than Apple Thinks.

What Is Apple's Plan?

There may be a couple of problems with this interpretation. First, the cost of the adapter is non-zero, which puts an interesting pressure on iPhone 5 customers: just use the included Lightning power/connection cord or pay extra for an adapter to keep a hold of the Micro-USB cord they already have?

It's a non-trivial cost, too: in the UK, the adapter runs £15, and in Germany the cost is 19€, which is around US $24-25, depending on the exchange rates. That's a lot of money to plunk down just to keep from switching cords, especially when the Lightning cord is already in hand.

Apple's pricing seems geared to drive people to make the switch over to Lightning and leave all those other connections behind. Apple's charging about twice as much for the Lightning to Micro-USB adapters as the older 30-pin to Micro-USB adapters, which run £8 and 8€ in the UK and Germany, respectively. And here in the US? Not available in the US Apple store as of this writing, so you'd have to order one and have it shipped.

The second issue with the adapters is that they will actually create more waste than simply shifting over to Micro-USB standard, since now there are adapters being built that otherwise would not have had to be used. Sure, you can use your old USB charger, but what happens to the Lightning cord that came in the iPhone 5 box? And that's just in the EU: in the US,  a lot of old 30-pin cords are going to get tossed out. Ideally, they'll be caught in Apple's or a community recycling program, but not always.

So why not just make the switch to Micro-USB? Besides the business rationale of being able to manage which peripherals will get connected to the iPhone (and presumably future) iOS devices, Apple has it's technical reasons as well.

Why Apple Doesn't Love Micro-USB

"The micro USB pins are very small, and the power-carrying connectors, pins 1 and 5, are rated to carry 1.8 amps at 5 volts DC. That means that the maximum charging power that can safely flow across the connector is 9 watts. But the iPad wants 10 watts to charge. It will charge on as little as 5 watts, the output of most USB 3 ports and the specially modified USB 2 ports on newer Apple products, but needs 10 watts for fastest charging," according to industry observer Steve Wildman.

With this approach, Apple still remains in compliance with its agreement in the EU. But given the net positive waste this solution will create and the recent hijinks Apple performed with the EPEAT compliance list for its MacBook products, Apple's commitment to environmental issues appears to be getting weaker with each new product release.