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 have their magnets made from 100% recycled rare earth elements, a closer look at Apple’s environmental reports demonstrates a trend of rising carbon emissions related to its 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 promising 4x better drop resistance. This improvement is applaudable, however the latest iPhones still scratch at level 6 and 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 14 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. 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, it is all too common that consumers decide to rather upgrade.

Source: iFixit

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 an 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 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 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.

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:

iPhone ModelTotal CO2 Emissions (KG)Rank (highest to lowest)
iPhone 11 Pro Max 512GB1111
iPhone 12 Pro Max 512GB1102
iPhone 6 Plus*1102
iPhone 11 Pro 512GB1074
iPhone 12 Pro 512GB1074
iPhone XS Max 512GB1066
iPhone XS 512GB997
iPhone 11 Pro Max 256GB978
iPhone 12 Pro Max 256GB969
iPhone 6*9510
iPhone 11 Pro 256GB9312
iPhone 12 Pro 256GB9312
iPhone X 256GB9312
iPhone XS Max 256GB9114
iPhone 11 256GB8715
iPhone 12 256GB8715
iPhone 12 Pro Max 128GB8617
iPhone XS 256GB8518
iPhone 12 Pro 128GB8219
iPhone 8 Plus 256GB8219
iPhone 11 Pro Max 64GB8021
iPhone 12 Mini 256GB8021
iPhone X 64GB7923
iPhone XS Max 64GB7724
iPhone 11 Pro 64GB7625
iPhone XR 256GB7625
iPhone 11 128GB7527
iPhone 12 128GB7527
iPhone 7 Plus 128GB7429
iPhone SE (2020) 256GB7330
iPhone 8 256GB7131
iPhone 5S*7032
iPhone 11 64GB7034
iPhone 12 64GB7034
iPhone 6S Plus 128GB7034
iPhone XS 64GB7034
iPhone 12 Mini 128GB6937
iPhone 8 Plus 64GB6838
iPhone 7 Plus 32GB6739
iPhone XR 128GB6739
iPhone 12 Mini 64GB6441
iPhone 6S Plus 32GB6342
iPhone 7 128GB6342
iPhone SE (2020) 128GB6244
iPhone XR 64GB6244
iPhone 6S 128GB6146
iPhone SE 128GB6047
iPhone 8 64GB5748
iPhone SE (2020) 64GB5748
iPhone 7 32GB5650
iPhone 4S*5551
iPhone 6S 32GB5452
iPhone SE 32GB5452

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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