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27/05/2020

iPhone Lifecycle: What Is The Carbon Footprint of an iPhone

iPhone Lifecycle: What Is The Carbon Footprint of an iPhone

This year, the iPhone is 13 years old. At the time, it was a revolutionary device that changed the smartphone game in terms of mobile communications. When working on the iPhone, Steve Jobs was hoping to capture at least 1% of smartphone market share. Fast forward to today, and Apple is now the 3rd largest smartphone manufacturer in the world. With this global popularity of an iPhone comes Apple’s responsibility to produce devices that will not only be appealing to customers, but won’t be as damaging to the environment.

Anything that is produced has carbon emissions associated with it and the iPhone is no exception. The cost of mining resources, distributing devices around the world, selling them at Apple and retailers’ stores, consumers using them and devices reaching their end of life is counted in carbon emissions. Within 13 years, Apple have managed to introduce reused materials and eliminate various substances that are harmful to the environment from their iPhones including BFRs, PVC, mercury, cadmium and lead from iPhone batteries. But this hasn’t made the iPhone carbon neutral. On the contrary, as you will see below, the iPhone total lifetime carbon emissions are rising. So what exactly is the carbon footprint of an iPhone?

What Is the Carbon Footprint of an iPhone?

Since the very first iPhone, Apple has been publishing environmental reports detailing the environmental impact of its iPhone products. So thanks to the data from Apple, we have the answer.

We’ve taken total carbon emissions’ figures across all capacities since the iPhone 8 and the lifetime carbon footprint of an iPhone works out to be 81.74 kg of CO2-e on average. As a single figure it appears to be fine. The same amount of CO2 is generated by consuming 8 gallons of diesel. However, it is actually estimated that Apple is on track to sell nearly 195 million iPhone units in fiscal year of 2020 and this changes the entire picture. Carrying out some calculations leaves us with 15.94 megatons of CO2-e to be created by iPhones in 2020 alone. In order to neutralise these emissions, 344 wind turbines need to be running for the entire year. iPhone sales this year are likely to be impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, but in any case the overall environmental impact of iPhones is significant.

The graph above illustrates the growing trend of total carbon emissions per iPhone since the iPhone 3G was released in 2007.

Apple iPhone Carbon Emissions Comparison

Which iPhone Has the Lowest Emissions?

From iPhone environmental reports, we have found that the least environmentally impactful iPhone from the Apple portfolio was the iPhone 4 with lifetime carbon emissions reported at just 45kg of CO2-e. Apple did not specify the emissions by capacity, so we are assuming that the figure is for the model with the lowest storage capacity.

The original iPhone SE 32GB follows with lifetime emissions of 54kg of CO2-e. Looking at the new iPhone SE 2020 environmental report, the upgraded SE has its average total lifetime carbon emissions at 64kg of CO2-e. There is a slight increase, but the fact that the new iPhone SE’s base storage configuration is double that of the original iPhone SE suggests that the latest SE is a tad more sustainable.

iPhone Devices Compared by Emissions

Previously, Apple was not breaking down the carbon footprint of iPhones by internal storage capacity. It was only after the iPhone 6S that Apple changed the iPhone life cycle analysis and introduced separation by capacity. Judging by the figures, the internal storage capacity has an impressive effect on the iPhone total lifetime carbon footprint.

Many of us would expect iPhone emissions to be declining year on year, since Apple are implementing ways to make iPhones kinder to the environment like switching to renewable energy, using recycled aluminium and tin, and eliminating plastic from packaging. However, the reality shows us something quite different. The table below illustrates that the more premium iPhones are becoming, the higher their carbon emissions get.

iPhone modelTotal KG of CO2-eRank
iPhone 11 Pro Max 512GB1171
iPhone 6 Plus*110=2
iPhone 11 Pro 512GB110=2
iPhone XS Max 512GB1064
iPhone 11 Pro Max 256GB1025
iPhone XS 512GB996
iPhone 11 Pro 256GB967
iPhone 6*958
iPhone X 256GB939
iPhone XS Max 256GB9110
iPhone 11 256GB8911
iPhone 11 Pro Max 64GB8612
iPhone XS 256GB8513
iPhone 8 Plus 256GB8214
iPhone 11 Pro 64GB8015
iPhone X 64GB7916
iPhone XS Max 64GB7717
iPhone XR 256GB7618
iPhone 7 Plus 128GB7419
iPhone 11 128GB73=20
iPhone SE (2020) 256GB73=20
iPhone 8 256GB7122
iPhone 5S*7023
iPhone XS 64GB70=24
iPhone 6S Plus 128GB70=24
iPhone 8 Plus 64GB68=26
iPhone 11 64GB68=26
iPhone 7 Plus 32GB67=28
iPhone XR 128GB67=28
iPhone 6S Plus 32GB63=30
iPhone 7 128GB63=30
iPhone XR 64GB62=32
iPhone SE (2020) 128GB62=32
iPhone 6S 128GB6134
iPhone SE 128GB6035
iPhone 8 64GB57=36
iPhone SE (2020) 64GB57=36
iPhone 7 32GB5638
iPhone 4S*55=39
iPhone 3GS*55=39
iPhone 3G*55=39
iPhone 6S 32GB54=42
iPhone SE 32GB54=42
iPhone 4*4543

*Emissions not detailed for different capacities

The table above ranks iPhone devices in descending order by total carbon emissions and as you can see, the iPhone 11 Pro Max 512GB broke all the records of CO2 across Apple’s lineup since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007 which shares a 39th place with the iPhone 3GS and the iPhone 4S.

Where Do iPhone Emissions Come From?

Manufacturing and Distribution

The packaging and distribution of ready devices amounts to only 5% of Apple’s carbon footprint and creates about 3% of the total lifetime emissions of an iPhone. However, Apple disclosed in their Environmental Responsibility Report 2019 that 77% of company’s carbon footprint comes from the production, with almost a quarter of these emissions generated by the use of aluminium in their products.

Building these complex devices and making them smart and powerful requires various resources to be extracted from the Earth. The entire process of mining resources and production of batteries, screens, circuit boards and speakers takes up a lion’s share of carbon emissions generated by manufacturing and is highly detrimental to the environment.

Although Apple reports great efforts of their final assembly suppliers transitioning to renewable energy to power their manufacturing facilities and eliminate waste that goes to landfill, with every high-end iPhone the percentage of emissions generated during production stages reaches even higher numbers.

iPhone emissions reported by Apple and broken down by production, transportation, use and end-of-life.

The latest iPhone SE released in April 2020 demonstrates a significant drop in mining and production emissions compared to the iPhone 11 series. But this should not be treated as an improvement to Apple’s production processes, as the iPhone SE 2020 has the same inner components of the iPhone 8, and the assembly of the new SE did not require Apple to produce more parts. Therefore, Apple were able to keep the price of the upgraded SE below £500 and the emissions low.

Use

Many of us would think that using an iPhone for two or three years would produce more carbon than a couple months long production process. Indeed, the original iPhone had 49% of its carbon footprint caused by consumer use and only 45% by manufacturing. But, as years went by and iPhones became more power efficient and the software became more intelligent, the use stage of the latest iPhones caused only in the region of 20% of the total carbon footprint of an iPhone. We charge our iPhones daily, we send emails and upload photos online and all of this requires energy, but all of this does not compare to the rising numbers of carbon generated by manufacturing parts that are assembled into modern iPhones.

Image by Marjan Grabowski on Unsplash

Apple encourages 2-year upgrade cycles by implementing improvements and design changes to the lineup every second year. This makes your two year old and perfectly working iPhone obsolete. Additionally, network providers create a perception of you owning an outdated phone by promoting better contracts and offering upgrade bundles and freebies. Would it not be better to use the iPhone you currently own for an additional year or two given the fact that it will be still receiving the latest iOS updates? If we would continue to use our iPhones until they give up on us, the impact that iPhones have on the environment would be justified.

End-Of-Life

The recycling of iPhones taken back by Apple causes less than 1% of iPhone’s overall carbon footprint thanks to Daisy’s efficiency, as well as other actors in Apple’s recycling programme across the globe. Trading in your unwanted iPhone ensures that it is being used for longer, preserving Earth’s finite resources and giving someone a chance to have an iPhone without spending a fortune. If your iPhone needs a new screen, there will be a repair shop that can fix it, or there are various DIY repair guides produced by repair enthusiasts like iFixit or the Restart Project. While any waste is ultimately harmful to the environment, electronics that become e-waste have an undeniable impact on the environment.

The Bottom Line

Apple is one of the largest smartphone manufacturers on the planet, and as such they are trying hard to increase iPhone sustainability and mitigate the environmental damage that is caused by production of their products. However, the rising trend of iPhone lifetime emissions, especially in the manufacturing stages, is a concern, therefore it is justified to be asking questions when Apple reports their progress in material efficiency and material footprint reduction. If Apple cannot fully commit to being completely environmentally responsible across the board, then the only other option is to take matters into your own hands by using and disposing of your iPhones responsibly.

Antonia

Antonia

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