SK Babu

@babulous

Can a gadget addict go green?

Thoughts about kicking my conspicuous consumption habit

Falling iPhone sales may be bad for Apple, but keeping old iPhones going is good for Earth (photo©babulous)

A few days ago, I saw a news article that said iPhone users now wait four years to upgrade their devices. I can relate to that as my iPhone 6S+ is now into its fourth year. Despite being a gadget-lover, I delayed upgrading because of the tear-inducing prices of iPhones in India. An iPhone XS Max (64GB) that’s $1099 in US is almost 50% pricier in India at $1545 (₹1,09,900).

However, people rarely do things because of a single reason. My other reason for delaying the upgrade is another snippet of news that I came across on the net. We are currently generating 40,000,000 tons of e-waste, every year.

Seems that’s like throwing out 800 laptops every single second. Ouch!

I couldn’t help feeling guilty. Just yesterday, I packed up a bunch of old DVDs to throw away as everything is available online these days. The last time I owned a DVD player was nearly eight years ago. Come to think of it, I’ve no idea where that player disappeared. Probably joined the huge pile of e-waste generated by yours truly. The day before, it was an old set-top box that became obsolete when the TV signal went digital. A week before, I disconnected my mother’s old landline. That’s two handsets and a bunch of telephone cables headed for the bin, and that’s not counting the two long looping cables dangling off the roof that lead to the telephone pole on the road. This morning, it was four rechargeable AA batteries that had died. In short, every other day, I’m contributing to the world’s mounting e-waste problem.

So what led to my enlightenment?

How many gadgets is too many gadgets?

Last weekend, I was staying over at a friend’s farm in the hills when something came up, and I had to rush back. On reaching home, I found my travel gadget-bag was missing two gadgets: a power bank and the portable hotspot to which I had connected it. I recalled leaving it outdoors in order to pick up the faint cellular signal in the hills. Fortunately, the rainy season hasn’t begun in India but I still had to make a 45-minute drive the next evening to retrieve my stuff.

Driving is thinking the time for me as my brain is relatively free of the distraction of my usual multitasking. So that’s how this question popped up in my mind.

What kind of person carries a travel gadget-bag with so much in it that he misplaces two gadgets, and doesn’t even notice he has misplaced them?

The answer was uncomfortably obvious. It’s a guy who has too many gadgets!

I took a closer look at my travel gadget-bag. Not counting my iPhone and iPad, there were a whole lot of assorted cables (lightning & USB) in varying sizes, three chargers, a couple of pen drives, a flash card, an OTG connector, a wifi range extender, a set of iPhone attach-on lens, an Android phone, an Echo Dot, a bluetooth speaker, a Bluetooth headset, and random adapters and dongles. Once upon a time, the only gadget I would have had on me was a camera.

Too many gadgets, and no two ways about it!

Stop consuming, start recycling

I have been talking about being environment-friendly. But I need to put my money where my mouth is. Ideally, I should get rid of all my gadgets, and go back to reading books and newspapers. However, giving away my expensive gadgets is a bit too much to ask of myself. But all of us can delay acquiring additional gadgets, cut down on our conspicuous consumption habits, and recycle our existing gadgets for a few extra years. That will give Mother Nature some respite from our constant ravaging of her resources.

Time to disagree with Amy Winehouse, and go to gadget rehab.

What I’m going to do is audit all my electronic devices, see if I can avoid buying more of the same. My goal is to try to make up for all my years of generating electronic waste, and cut down or delay my consumption. It’s the least I can do for my e-waste contributions to our long-suffering planet. So here goes.

Phones

Let’s start with my phones, which is where I generate the most e-waste. I picked up my current phone, the iPhone 6S+, around the end of 2015. So it’s now into the third month of its fourth year. Considering my e-waste crimes, I’m wondering if I can push it to last five years, instead of four years as I had originally planned. So what exactly is stopping me from delaying my phone upgrade till 2020 when Apple launches the iPhone 11S?

FOMO This is the largest obstacle for any gadget addict. What if the latest iPhone has fantastic new features that mine doesn’t? Fortunately, the rate of technology improvement seems to have slowed down. I have played around with an iPhone XS Max. It’s definitely quicker, the screen is larger and better, those portrait shots are nice, and Face Unlock is really cool. But it’s not like the difference between my iPad 3 and my 2018 iPad (6th gen) where the former is as slow as sludge and barely usable. The new iPhones don’t really have killer features that make me feel it’s absolutely essential to upgrade. The battle is more in my mind. Can I live with a 3-year old phone for a couple more years?

Failing Batteries This one is a deal breaker. My iPhone’s battery began running out faster around the end of last year. Like if I was using it to shoot pix at an event or a holiday, the battery would die in a couple of hours. It was quite exasperating, and I ended up getting a power bank to tide me through the day. So when I heard Apple was offering a discounted battery replacement program, I grabbed the opportunity and changed my iPhone’s battery (despite the Apple dealer trying his best to dissuade me). That worked out well as my iPhone’s battery life feels as good as new, and I can manage without a power bank most days.

One way to check an iPhone battery’s health is from within the iOS Settings app. I ran the check on my wife’s and my iPhones. They both showed 100% health, which isn’t surprising as they both have new batteries.

But I wanted more details. So I connected my device to my Mac, and ran the CoconutBattery app (It’s the free basic version; Windows users can use a trial version of an app called iBackupBot). The first two screen captures below show battery health for my iPhone 6S+ and my wife’s iPhone SE. The last one on the right is a one-year-old result of my iPhone 6S+ with its original battery.

As you can see, the battery health on both phones is still at 100%. The iPhone 6S+ has run 88 full charging cycles since I replaced it four months ago (Oct 2018). My wife’s iPhone’s battery was replaced later, and its cycle count is only 28. However, my iPhone 6s+’s original battery was at 89.7% health when I checked it in January 2018. The Apple service guys told me performance is only affected when the battery health drops below 80%. But I changed it anyway to avoid missing Apple’s replacement offer for throttled batteries.

Since changing batteries, I have been careful with my charging habits, trying to stay close to Battery University’s recommendations of keeping the battery charge within the 25–75% range. The ideal 65–75% range is impractical (refer my dedicated article on phone batteries for details).

In short, if my wife and I take care of our iPhones’ batteries, they should easily keep going for three years, which would be the end of 2021.

Physical Durability iPhones are expensive, but to Apple’s credit, they rarely compromise on quality (accessories like lightning cables are another story). Of course, if you drop an iPhone off a two-storey building as a friend did, it won’t survive. However, if you use a good case, and minimise falls, especially on rough surfaces, these phones can take a beating and keep going.

But there’s a factor beyond my control, which would be my wife. She detests phone cases despite dropping her phone occasionally. I have had to replace its screen guard recently. The replacement screen guard already has a hairline crack running across its front. The bright side is her iPhone 4 lasted five years before its screen shattered in a fall. I’m optimistic her phone will survive for years. What improves the odds are the iPhone SE’s classic flat shape, and steel wrapped body, that makes it the most durable iPhone in the market.

Having said that, a phone is a box of electronics, and it can’t beat Father Time. Tech inevitably becomes outdated, and components may fail. My iPhone 5 lasted a couple of years before its screen died one morning, possibly because it was a refurbished phone. I did get it fixed, but it’s not compatible with my 4G service so I had to reluctantly put into cold storage. Likewise, my iPhone 4 began to have an issue with its speaker, with the sound output becoming faint around its 4th year. As I couldn’t take calls in noisy environments, I had to retire it. My iPad 3 had a similar issue with its speakers, though I have managed to work around it, by pairing it with a Bluetooth speaker.

Software Compatibility Apple has had a bit of an up and down on the software front. iOS updates once slowed down older devices and pushed users to upgrade. Apple’s philosophy led to ‘throttlegate’ where older iPhone models were deliberately slowed down, to avoid them shutting down when the new apps drew too much power. That was a blessing in disguise as the public outcry forced Apple to offer that subsidized battery replacement program which I took advantage of.

However, Apple seems to have got the memo. iOS 12 actually improved the performance of older devices. Updating my iPhone 6S+ to iOS 12 made it faster, and brought in many new useful features. Siri Shortcuts is one of those features which I use every day, and it’s not the only one.

Hopefully, Apple keeps up the good work with iOS 13. But there’s only so much Apple can do with old hardware as it just can’t keep up with software designed for new phones with faster processors.

Android Angles I have a second phone, an Android. I got Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 4 in May 2017 for ₹12000 ($170). With its relatively low price, I tend to upgrade my Android every two years. I have my eye on the Poco F1, another phone from Xiaomi with top end specs at an affordable price of ₹20000 ($283). But I’m now having second thoughts. Sure, it’s speedy, has a larger screen, and works with gestures but it’s not really a huge jump from my Note 4. I think I can easily wait a year or two to upgrade.

My kid also has an Android, a Moto G3. It’s three years old but serves her needs so we’ll keep that one also going till it drops.

Land phones There is still one at home as my better half feels it’s safer for the child to use for long calls than a cellphone. I did pack away the cordless set as she disliked having one more device giving out possibly harmful radiations. There’s an old non-functioning handset also on top of one of the cupboards.

No new phones at home in 2019, fingers crossed.

Wifi Routers

Let me tackle routers next. For a relatively uninteresting product category, I have been surprisingly wasteful with routers.

My Netgear wifi router was working fine a year ago when I replaced it with a Mi router on an impulse. My justification was it gave me better control over devices accessing my network. I also got myself a wifi extender to improve wifi signal downstairs, and a portable wireless router for use while traveling.

To be frank, I could have managed with my Netgear router as its signal is strong enough to be accessed anywhere at home, and it does allow limited control over access to my network. Finally, any cellphone can duplicate what my portable router does.

In hindsight, buying those three gadgets was irresponsible and definitely environment-unfriendly on my part. This kind of unnecessary proliferation of gadgets is what’s responsible for the huge upsurge in electronic waste.

Now I’m stuck with a spare router that’s perfectly functional, and three more old ones that may or may not be in working condition. I did have a little luck with recycling one of them. That was when my sister took a broadband connection, and I managed to use one of my old routers there instead of her buying a new one. It’s been going strong for over two years now. I keep hoping I can recycle the others too, but if I can’t, they will have to go eventually.

Won’t be needing new routers for quite some time unless I change providers and need a different type of router. That doesn’t look likely at the moment.

Tablets

iPads have massive batteries. If used with reasonable care, these devices will keep going for many years. I got my iPad 3 in 2012, and it served me well for almost five years until I updated it to iOS 9. This was an unmitigated disaster, with the iPad slowing down to a crawl, and becoming virtually unusable for anything beyond basic browsing and watching videos. Around the same time, its speakers started misbehaving.

I ended up having to replace it with my current 6th Gen iPad in May 2018. This iPad has a faster processor than my iPhone, cost a lot less, and is still less than a year old. It’s undoubtedly the best value for money among all my Apple devices. I use it every day for reading, entertainment, work (especially when I’m traveling), and also use it to play around with images as the many iOS apps and Apple Pencil compatibility does allow me to experiment.

Out of curiosity, I tested the battery of both iPads using the Coconut battery app on my iMac and added the results of my iPhone 6S+ for comparison.

My old iPad 3 shows just 81.2% battery and a cycle count of 497. My local Apple dealer told me Apple says an iPhone’s battery is due for replacement if its health falls below 80%. So this is on the borderline, though I’m not sure if that 80% figure applies to iPads. Anyway, I no longer use that iPad as it had become too slow, and I had anyway extracted around six years of life from it.

My current iPad’s test results show a cycle count of just 76 full battery charges in the nearly nine months of daily use. In comparison, my iPhone 6S+ has had the equivalent of 88 full battery charges in just four months. The difference is no doubt due to the iPad’s large battery. This device has many more years of productivity ahead.

I won’t be needing any new iPads for at least four years, say up to 2023–24.

Computers

We have three old computers at home. The newest is a 3-year-old, touchscreen Windows laptop. Then there’s my 2011 iMac, and a 2008 MacBook Pro.

My wife and kid share the laptop, and since the child is not too careful with it, its battery life has been reduced. But they both use it mainly surfing and watching videos. So it’s functional for now. I guess it will keep going till it crashes. However, if my kid for some reason takes up a study course that necessitates a new model, I will have to get it and that’s out of my control.

The MacBook Pro is a dinosaur. I had its battery replaced, and the replacement too bulged. So I now run it directly from the mains. Surprisingly, it still works, and I can use it for simple activities, like say writing this Medium post. It also serves as a portable desktop while traveling. In its favor, the massive 17" screen is a decent desktop replacement and it’s got a ton of ports so I can use it for tasks that my iMac can’t handle. Like the other day when I had to rip videos from an old DV tape. Carrying it around is an issue though.

The iMac is my workhorse. The old chap is like a 70-year-old running a marathon, pottering along slowly but eventually getting there. It can’t load the latest Mac OS, has an outdated Bluetooth that won’t allow for Handover or Airdrop, and its DVD drive stopped working long ago. Fortunately, my iPad has taken over some of the tasks that my Mac now struggles with. It’s not the best solution, but I can live with it, as basic typing and surfing still work fine on it.

So yeah, on the computer front, I can try to delay replacements if everything goes to plan, and let’s just ignore John Lennon’s thoughts on life and plans.

iPods

My first iPod, an old clickwheel relic is still functional and has around 60GB of music in it, but it isn’t seeing any action. My kid’s iPod Touch (5th gen) is also idle, as she stopped using it once she got her Android.

The iPods’ redundancy began when Steve Jobs launched the iPhone, which also doubled as an iPod. Their demise was hastened when internet and data prices began dropping, as everyone simply streams music these days, even casually playing Youtube music video on phones with the screen turned off.

I think what really killed the iPod is Alexa. Who wants to search and scroll through phones, when Alexa can play you whatever you want just for the asking. Even my tech-phobic wife has recently been snuggling up to Alexa. (Unlike my kid and I, she’s very polite to Alexa, and even smiles when she requests anything of her. Something tells me we should follow her lead).

I wish I could recycle or rather re-purpose these iPods but it isn’t happening. Theoretically, I could use them as external storage but my 32GB pen drives are far more convenient. If Indian summers didn’t get so scorching hot, I might have moved the clickwheel iPod permanently into my car as a music player.

Anyway, no one buys iPods anymore. As for my old iPods, they have some sentimental value but are mostly languishing in the twilight zone of being neither useful nor dead while I figure out what to do with them.

Television

This one is easy and quick. I traded in my ten-year-old Philips 32" TV for an Android, the Mi TV 4C Pro, a couple of months ago. My original plan was to buy small, and upgrade every 2–3 years.

But I don’t think I will be upgrading my TV anytime soon.

Speakers and headsets

There are three or four speakers of different types, sizes, and shapes lying around the house. One of them, a fake portable Bose wireless speaker is now mostly dysfunctional as it was left out in the rain by my kid.

As for headsets, we have a few ‘family’ ones that my wife and kid share as they keep losing and finding their personal headsets periodically. I used to wear my Apple wired earbuds while jogging, but it tragically drowned in my sweat. I replaced it with a wired JBL headset which reviewers claimed was sweat proof. After one year of jogging with it, I can verify that claim. However, that headset is now my backup as I picked up a JBL Bluetooth to avoid struggling with cables while exercising.

The fake Bose speaker will join the e-waste flood. But we won’t be adding any more speakers or headsets to our home collection in the near future.

Power Banks

I got a new one last year during a buying spree. My justification was my old Sony power bank was beginning to show its age and taking forever to charge my phone. The truth is that was just an excuse as my Sony Powerbank will probably last another couple of years with ease.

The real reason I bought my Mi Powerbank is that it was a fancy one going for just ₹699 ($10). It has a low power mode to charge gadgets with tiny batteries without damaging them (like my like Bluetooth headset). It’s also powerful enough to charge my phone quickly, has enough power to charge my iPad’s giant battery and can do both simultaneously. Besides like all Xiaomi gadgets, it looks good and is real value for money.

My power bank should last for 3–4 years, unless I ‘misplace’ it permanently, so I will definitely not be surfacing in the power bank market for a long time.

Wearables

My Mi Band 2 is no Apple watch. But I have no complaints as it does its job of counting my steps, and giving me the time and date, all at a cost of just ₹1600 ($22). I was tempted to upgrade to a Mi Band 3 recently for its bigger screen.

But here’s where I reveal a dark secret. My Mi Band 1 is still functional but lying idle in a corner of my drawer. I had replaced it with the Mi Band 2 as it didn’t have a dial and I had to use an app on my phone to view my data.

My Mi Band 2’s battery lasts for a month or more on a single charge so this gadget will last for five years at least. As for the redundant Mi Band 1, buying it was a bad idea as I always knew it didn’t have a dial. My bad.

For Earth’s sake and to make up for my Mi Band 1 misadventure, I will avoid my wearable upgrades till my Mi Band 2 gives up its ghost.

Backup Disks

My first generation 500GB Time Capsule is still doing its job though I’m eking out its life by turning it on just once a month to do a backup. My regular backups are on an external 1TB drive, and I have a second 1TB disk dedicated to backing up photos and home videos. There are also a few random pen drives hidden around the house, as I find people tend to lose these easily.

Won’t be needing any more backup disks though I did get a scare when one fell down the other day.

Adaptors and cables

With so many gadgets in residence at home, I have a lot of these thingies at home. Last week, a lightning cable stopped working, so it’s on its way out.

Using counterfeit accessories is asking for trouble. So I have to keep replacing these with originals or Apple certified ones, if and when they fail.

This one will have to be handled on a case-to-case basis.

TV Set-Top Box

My D2H box must be around five years old. The record to USB function has been failing recently, but I have been pushing it along as I don’t watch too much of TV.

The probability is high that this box will fail and will have to be replaced sometime this year. Let’s hope it doesn’t.

Camera and Lens

I have a DSLR camera that I use about once a year. A now quaint 8 megapixel, my Canon 350D is still perfectly functional after I replaced its battery last year. I have some good memories with it. But I now rarely use the camera or its accessories like the 50mm prime lens, a 70–300 zoom lens, and the tripod.

Smartphones killed the camera. They are compact, weigh almost nothing in comparison, and are quick to catch a shot as they are always on you.

At the beach (photo©babulous)

As long as my camera works, I will dust it off once in a while, and keep it.

Retired Gadgets

The above about covers the list of my actively used gadgets. I do have some other devices like an old Sony Handycam that records on DV tapes and maybe some other stuff in the loft that I’m unaware of or have forgotten about. Apart from those, I have a few retired iOS devices in one of my cupboards. To check their condition, I ran the coconutbattery on three of these devices: an iPod, an iPhone 4, and an iPhone 5, all of which are rarely or never used.

The phones aren’t of much use as they don’t work on India’s 4G networks. The iPod which belongs to my kid has been supplanted in her affections by a phone. The only reason these are still around is that they have no resale value, and Apple doesn’t have a recycling program in India as far as I know.

Moving on, there’s something wrong with either the iPod or the battery test. It can’t be at 100% capacity as it’s six years old. As for the iPhone 4, I replaced its battery a few years ago but its defective speaker makes it hard to recycle.

The iPhone 5 seems the worst off. At 69%, its battery could fail any day now. One way I can salvage something is by taking up the online exchange offers if someone in my extended family needs to buy a new phone. I will probably get ₹1000 ($14) if I’m lucky. Hopefully, if I do this, they will recycle the phone.

Recycling

So what do I plan to do with all of my electronic junk which is in working condition but lying idle?

Ideally, I try to reuse them. Like when I connected a couple of retired desktop speakers to my mother’s TV to amp up the drama of her melodramatic Indian TV serials. Stuff also gets passed down. My old Bluetooth speaker went to my kid. My old iPad has reinvented itself as my wife’s personal cooking advisor thanks to YouTube, and we are getting to taste a lot of strange dishes.

However, the good thing about India is we do have a huge recycling industry. Like when I realised my old PC was rotting away, I asked one of these guys to drop in and pick it up. He informed me he would break it apart, salvage whatever can be reused, and junk the rest.

He also gave me ₹100 ($1.4) for the honor of carting it away. India is India.

Conclusion

As penance for my many e-waste contributions, I think I may be able to get through 2019 without buying any new gadgets. Wish me luck.

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