Compare and Recycle
04/03/2020

Are iPhones Bad for the Environment?

Three iPhones side by side with polluted smoke rising from them

With environmental issues under the spotlight, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the damaging effects that the mountains of textile and plastic waste our throw-away culture generates. Hardly any of us realise the harmful side-effects of the millions of iPhones manufactured by Apple every year and our seemingly innocuous act of buying a new iPhone and tucking our old one away.

Without getting too deep into discussion about the intersection of technology with sustainability, let’s examine how bad iPhones are for the environment and whether Apple is taking the necessary steps to make iPhones environmentally friendly.

In this article:

Image from support.apple.com

How Bad Are iPhones for the Environment?

The main problem with iPhones, and smartphones in general, is their short lifespan. Annually, Apple takes to the stage to announce an ‘improved’ version of an iPhone and due to numerous factors including end of contracts, brand loyalty and physical damage to their current iPhones, many users will inevitably upgrade. In fact, 45% of smartphone owners would rather upgrade than repair their phone, with cost of repairs being the main culprit.

Apple improve the specifications of their iPhones every year, but we are at a point where we should be seeing significant advances to reduce the environmental impact of smartphones. There are some scientifically agreed and established tactics that can be implemented to reduce the impact of iPhones on the environment:

  • Choosing recyclable components
  • Reducing reliance on rare earth and toxic materials
  • Repair-friendly hardware design
  • Minimising packaging and making durable accessories
  • Improving energy efficiency
  • Extending ownership.

Many of these are already incorporated into Apple's operations to some extent, and in comparison to other smartphone manufacturers, Apple is more environmentally focused. Apple retail shops and data centres are powered by 100% renewable energy and the tech giant uses an advanced recycling robot which takes 200 iPhones apart per hour. But this is only a fraction of what can be done, and the same ambition for accessible repair and planet-first hardware design from Apple, is much needed.

Relevant reading:

Mining and Manufacturing iPhones Has the Most Impact on the Environment

Apple reports that 70% of its carbon emissions are generated by manufacturing and 22% by use of products. Although Apple is taking measures to reduce the use of toxic and ‘critical’ materials, in the production of the latest iPhones they use 100% certified recycled gold in the plating of circuit boards and camera wiring. When we take a closer look at Apple’s environmental reports, they demonstrate a trend of rising carbon emissions related to its flagship products, which covers everything from mining the raw materials, to final assembly.

It’s not difficult to calculate that if iPhones were made to last, consumers could offset the emissions created during production by simply being able to use their iPhones for longer. But fragile designs and costly repairs encourage people to pick a new iPhone instead of keeping their current model for longer.

Are iPhones Made to Last?

Remember the controversial Apple news of 2018? Apple was caught intentionally slowing down older iPhones in an attempt to prevent unexpected shutdowns. Fast forward to today, after various multi-million dollars lawsuits, Apple is now more transparent about their practices and users have an option to manually disable processor throttling on their iPhones. But the main concern remains, Apple building planned obsolescence into their devices which contradicts their claims of sustainability. This shouldn’t occur in a tech company’s operations that positions itself as doing good for the planet.

The glass design gives iPhones a premium feel, however "glass is glass and it breaks". It makes iPhones prone to scratches as well as unsightly cracks that are expensive to fix. Apple have added Ceramic Shield coating to its iPhone 12 series and carried it over to the iPhone 14 lineup, promising 4x better drop resistance. This improvement is applaudable, however the iPhone 12 still scratches at level 6. Various drop tests have reported better durability of iPhone 12 screens. But let us remind you that only the displays of the iPhone 12 series are coated with Ceramic Shield technology. What is the point of protecting the front glass and leaving the rear one out of the equasion? This leaves us with the impression that Apple is making baby steps in the right direction. But, what is claimed on stage during iPhone launches, differs from the real life products and it doesn't match up with Apple's ambitions towards sustainability.

Apple is doing a great job at keeping their devices supported for longer compared to its rivals, and equips iPhones with performance enhanced processors. For example, a five year old iPhone XS runs the latest iOS without an issue. However, besides the perfectly functioning software, the batteries naturally degenerate, and even though there are ways to maintain battery longevity, replacing a battery is sometimes essential, and can only be officially supplied by Apple and replaced by an Apple certified repair provider.

Are iPhones Repair-Friendly?

One of the main reasons for an iPhone replacement is physical damage or an unhealthy battery. Apple charges substantial fees for repairs and actively opposes Right to Repair. This makes it challenging and nearly impossible to fit a new screen, swap a battery at home or at a local repair shop for a fraction of the cost. When weighing the cost of repairing an iPhone against the price of a new phone, factoring in the hassle of taking it to a repair shop then dealing with warning messages/disabled features, it is common for consumers to decide to upgrade instead.

Source: iFixit

Apple takes measures to prevent unauthorised repairs. Simply swapping your iPhone's screen at a third-party repair shop will trigger a non-genuine display alert. As documented in a video by Phone Repair Guru on YouTube, Apple has gone one step further with the iPhone 13 series disabling FaceID after the display replacement, even if the screen fitted was from another iPhone. TheArtofRepair channel on YouTube was among the first to face a new ‘feature’ that Apple introduced: battery replacement in the newest iPhones triggers a warning message saying “Unable to verify this iPhone has a genuine Apple battery”. This disables the battery health analysis, further damaging the longevity of the iPhone, unless the battery can be authenticated to the iPhone at an Apple store. Authentication can only be performed with Apple’s repair and calibration software which Apple has not yet made available to independent repair shops. The official communication is that Apple keeps control of this over fears of catastrophic battery failure.

Low Quality Accessories: Apple Is Yet to Fix Their Chargers

If you have owned an Apple phone, it will come as no surprise that the cables break easily and it is likely that you have had at least double the amount of charging cables. Apple charging cables are a nightmare for consumers. With daily use, cables fray and the contacts start to wear off, and the cost of £19 per cable over the course of owning an iPhone adds up fast. However, from a design perspective they are sleek, simple and follow the design-first directive that is fundamental to Apple.

Relevant reading:

In the past, the iPhone maker tried to reject the EU proposal to introduce universal chargers for smartphones, but this proposal has since become law. Apple’s opinion on common charging cables is that they stifle innovation rather than encourage it, and would harm consumers in Europe and the economy as a whole. Undoubtedly, MagSafe chargers and the whole idea of having a port-less iPhone one day, is Apple's way of trying to work around these regulations. Apple's position on this issue is that it is not yet ready to reduce e-waste by overcoming the obstacle of millions of dollars in revenue from selling poor quality chargers. This is another contradiction to maintaining a healthy environment.

Apple have also made a decision to no longer supply charging bricks with the iPhone 12 series and positioned this move as an effort to fight the growing amounts of e-waste. If you have previously owned an iPhone, you most likely have a charging adaptor, but there's a caveat. The iPhone 12 series is only compatible with iPhone 11 charging bricks. If your're not upgrading from an iPhone 11, you'll have to spend extra money to purchase the adapter separately. The adapter comes in its own packaging, has its own carbon footprint and of course, requires separate delivery. We don't need to do any advanced math to conclude that this green move by Apple does more harm than good.

What are the carbon emissions of my iPhone?

iPhone carbon emissions differ greatly by internal storage capacity, and we have ranked every single iPhone ever made and its CO2 in a table below (the lower the ranking, the fewer total carbon emissions):

iPhone ModelTotal CO2-e (KG)Rank (highest to lowest)
iPhone 14 Pro Max 1TB1241
iPhone 13 Pro Max 1TB1172
iPhone 14 Pro 1TB1163
iPhone 13 Pro 1TB1124
iPhone 11 Pro Max 512GB1115
iphone 6 plus1106
iPhone 15 Pro Max 1TB1106
iPhone 11 Pro 512GB1077
iPhone 15 Pro 1TB1077
iPhone XS Max 512GB1068
iPhone 12 Pro Max 512GB1019
iPhone XS 512GB9910
iPhone 12 Pro 512GB9811
iPhone 11 Pro Max 256GB9712
iPhone 69513
iPhone X 256GB9314
iPhone 11 Pro 256GB9314
iPhone 13 Pro Max 512GB9314
iPhone 14 Pro Max 512GB9314
iPhone XS Max 256GB9115
iPhone 14 Plus 512gb9115
iPhone 12 Pro Max 256GB8916
iPhone 13 Pro 512GB8817
iPhone 11 256GB8718
iPhone 15 Pro Max 512GB8718
iPhone 12 Pro 256GB8619
iPhone XS 256GB8520
iPhone 14 Pro 512GB8421
iPhone 13 512gb8322
iPhone 14 512gb8322
iPhone 15 Pro 512GB8322
iPhone 13 Mini 512gb8123
iPhone 13 Pro Max 256GB8123
iPhone 11 Pro Max 64GB8024
iPhone 12 256gb8024
iPhone 12 Pro Max 128GB8024
iPhone 14 Pro Max 256GB8024
iPhone X 64GB7925
iPhone 15 plus 512gb7925
iPhone 12 Pro 128GB7826
iPhone XS Max 64GB7727
iPhone XR 256GB7628
iPhone 11 Pro 64GB7628
iPhone 13 Pro 256GB7628
iPhone 11 128GB7529
iPhone 12 Mini 256gb7529
iPhone 14 Plus 256gb7529
iPhone 15 Pro Max 256GB7529
iPhone 13 Pro Max 128GB7430
iPhone 15 512gb7430
iPhone 14 Pro Max 128GB7331
iPhone 12 128gb7232
iPhone 13 256gb7133
iPhone 14 Pro 256GB7133
iPhone 15 Pro 256GB7133
iPhone 5S7034
iPhone XS 64GB7034
iPhone 11 64GB7034
iPhone SE (2020) 256GB7034
iPhone 13 Mini 256gb6935
iPhone 13 Pro 128GB6935
iPhone 8 Plus6836
iPhone 12 64gb6836
iPhone 14 Plus 128gb6836
iPhone 7 Plus6737
iPhone XR 128GB6737
iPhone 14 256gb6737
iPhone 12 Mini 128gb6638
iPhone 15 plus 256gb6638
iPhone 15 Pro 128GB6638
iPhone 14 Pro 128GB6539
iPhone 13 128gb6440
iPhone 6S Plus6341
iPhone XR 64GB6242
iPhone 12 Mini 64gb6242
iPhone 13 Mini 128gb6143
iPhone 14 128gb6143
iPhone 15 256gb6143
iPhone 15 plus 128gb6143
iPhone SE (2020) 128GB5944
iPhone SE (2022) 256GB5845
iPhone 85746
iPhone 75647
iPhone 15 128gb5647
iPhone 3G5548
iPhone 3GS5548
iPhone 4s5548
iPhone SE (2020) 64GB5548
iPhone 6S5449
iPhone SE (2022) 128GB5050
iPhone SE (2022) 64GB4651
iPhone 4s4552
iPhone SE4552

*Emissions not detailed for different capacities

Will An iPhone Ever Be Eco Friendly?

Over the past few years, scientists, environmental organisations and climate activists have been pushing for a change in consumer behaviour and encouraging corporations to implement environmentally ethical practices. While we see many iPhones being traded in and given a second life through Compare and Recycle, we can see that Apple cares about the environment to some extent. But at a global scale, every manufactured iPhone continues to harm the environment.

With Apple's resources, iPhones have the potential to be the most ethical smartphones. Currently, there’s no 100% green way to buy a new iPhone, but we can change our behaviour and stick to the greenest smartphone: the one you currently own. If you genuinely need a new phone, follow our advice on how to upgrade with less impact on the environment.

Antonia

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