04/03/2020

Are iPhones Bad for the Environment?

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. 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. 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.

Mining and Manufacturing iPhones Has the Most Impact on the Environment

Apple reports that 71% 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 use 100% certified recycled gold in the plating of their logic boards, a closer look at Apple’s environmental reports demonstrates 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 and unsightly cracks that are expensive to fix. Apple have added Ceramic Shield coating to its iPhone 12 series and carried it over to iPhone 13 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 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 an impression that Apple is making baby steps in the right direction, however what is claimed on stage during iPhone launches differs from 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 than its rivals do, and equips iPhones with performance enhanced processors. For example, a five year old iPhone 7 runs the latest iOS 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 or do so at a local repair shop for a fraction of the cost. When weighing the cost of repair against the price of a new phone and factoring in the hassle of taking an iPhone for a repair or worse dealing with warning messages and disabled features, it is all too common that consumers decide to rather upgrade.

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 so far not 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.

The iPhone maker has rejected the recent EU proposal to introduce universal 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. Undoubtedly, MagSafe chargers and the whole idea of having a port-less iPhone one day, is Apple's way of working around the upcoming regulations. We interpret Apple's position on 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.

Apple have also made a decision to no longer supply charging bricks with 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 their's a caveat. Only iPhone 11 charging bricks are compatible with the iPhone 12 series, and unless you're upgrading from an iPhone 11, you will need to spend additional money to buy the adaptor which will come in its own packaging, has its own carbon footprint and needs to be delivered to you separately. 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 Emissions (KG)Rank (highest to lowest)
iPhone 13 Pro Max 1TB1171
iPhone 13 Pro 1TB1122
iPhone 11 Pro Max 512GB1113
iPhone 6 Plus*1104
iPhone 12 Pro Max 512GB1104
iPhone 12 Pro 512GB1075
iPhone 11 Pro 512GB1075
iPhone XS Max 512GB1066
iPhone XS 512GB997
iPhone 11 Pro Max 256GB978
iPhone 12 Pro Max 256GB969
iPhone 6*9510
iPhone 13 Pro Max 512GB9311
iPhone X 256GB9311
iPhone 12 Pro 256GB9311
iPhone 11 Pro 256GB9311
iPhone XS Max 256GB9112
iPhone 13 Pro 512GB8813
iPhone 12 256GB8714
iPhone 11 256GB8714
iPhone 12 Pro Max 128GB8615
iPhone XS 256GB8516
iPhone 13 512GB8317
iPhone 8 Plus 256GB8218
iPhone 12 Pro 128GB8218
iPhone 13 Pro Max 256GB8119
iPhone 13 Mini 512GB8119
iPhone 12 Mini 256GB8020
iPhone 11 Pro Max 64GB8020
iPhone X 64GB7921
iPhone XS Max 64GB7722
iPhone 13 Pro 256GB7623
iPhone XR 256GB7623
iPhone 11 Pro 64GB7623
iPhone 12 128GB7524
iPhone 11 128GB7524
iPhone 13 Pro Max 128GB7425
iPhone 7 Plus 128GB7425
iPhone SE (2020) 256GB7326
iPhone 13 256GB7127
iPhone 8 256GB7127
iPhone XS 64GB7028
iPhone 6S Plus 128GB7028
iPhone 5S*7028
iPhone 12 64GB7028
iPhone 11 64GB7028
iPhone 13 Pro 128GB6929
iPhone 13 Mini 256GB6929
iPhone 12 Mini 128GB6929
iPhone 8 Plus 64GB6830
iPhone XR 128GB6731
iPhone 7 Plus 32GB6731
iPhone 13 128GB6432
iPhone 12 Mini 64GB6432
iPhone 7 128GB6333
iPhone 6S Plus 32GB6333
iPhone XR 64GB6234
iPhone SE (2020) 128GB6234
iPhone 13 Mini 128GB6135
iPhone 6S 128GB6135
iPhone SE 128GB6036
iPhone SE (2022) 256GB5837
iPhone SE (2020) 64GB5738
iPhone 8 64GB5738
iPhone 7 32GB5639
iPhone 4S*5540
iPhone SE 32GB5441
iPhone 6S 32GB5441
iPhone SE (2022) 128GB5042
iPhone SE (2022) 64GB4643

*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 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.

Antonia

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