With environmental issues under the spotlight, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the damaging effects that mountains of textile and plastic waste our throw-away lifestyle generates, but 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.
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.
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
Apple already incorporate many of these, 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 they use 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.
Mining and Manufacturing iPhones Has the Most Impact on the Environment
Apple reports that 74% of its carbon emissions are generated by manufacturing and only 19% by use of products. Although Apple is taking measures to reduce the use of toxic and ‘critical’ materials in the production and the latest iPhones have Taptic Engines made from 100% recycled rare earth elements, a closer look at Apple’s environmental reports demonstrates a trend of rising carbon emissions created during the production stage, 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 lawsuits and multi-million dollars in these 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, it makes them slippery, prone to scratches and prone to unsightly cracks that are expensive to fix. Apple is going in the wrong direction in terms of sustainable design choices which doesn’t match up with their ambitions towards sustainability.
Apple is doing a great job at keeping their devices supported for longer than its rivals do, and equips iPhones with performance enhanced processors. For example, a four year old iPhone 6s runs the latest iOS 13 without an issue. But besides perfectly functioning software, the batteries naturally degenerate, and even though there are ways to maintain battery longevity, replacing a battery is sometimes essential, but 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 iPhone replacement is physical damage or an unhealthy battery. Apple charges substantial fees for repairs and actively opposes Right to Repair, making it challenging and nearly impossible to fit a new screen or swap a battery at home. When weighing the cost of repair against the price of a new phone, it is all too common that consumers decide to upgrade and trade-in their device.
Apple takes measures to prevent unauthorised repairs. TheArtofRepair channel on YouTube was among the first to face a new ‘feature’ that Apple has recently introduced: battery replacement in the newest iPhones triggering 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 the Apple store. Authentication can only be performed with Apple’s repair and calibration software which Apple has so far not made available for 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 chargers are a nightmare for consumers, but from a design perspective they are sleek, simple and follow the design-first directive that is fundamental to Apple.
The iPhone maker has rejected the recent EU proposal to introduce unified chargers for smartphones. 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. We interpret this as millions of dollars that Apple is making in revenue by selling poor quality chargers is an obstacle Apple is not ready to overcome to reduce e-waste, which is another contradiction to maintaining a healthy environment.
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 and Apple cares about the environment to some extent, 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.