Compare and Recycle
27/05/2020

iPhone Lifecycle: What Is The Carbon Footprint of an iPhone

Selection of Apple iPhone products

The iPhone has been around for more than a decade. Back in 2007, 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 among the top three largest smartphone manufacturers 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.

Since the beginning of the iPhone, 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?

In this article:

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 storage capacities since the iPhone 4S and the lifetime carbon footprint of an iPhone works out to be 77.42 kg of CO2-e on average. As a single figure it appears to be fine. The same amount of CO2 is generated by consuming 8.7 gallons of petrol. However, Apple shipped 224.7 million iPhones in 2022, and this changes the entire picture. Carrying out some calculations leaves us with 17.42 megatonnes of CO2-e created by iPhones in 2022 alone. In order to neutralise these emissions, 4,845 wind turbines need to be running for the entire year. Therefore it is safe to say the overall environmental impact of iPhones is significant.

The chart above illustrates the total averages of carbon emissions per iPhone since the iPhone 4S until iPhone 15 Pro Max (2023).

Relevant reading:

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 iPhone SE 2022 environmental report, the upgraded SE has its average total lifetime carbon emissions at 51kg of CO2-e which is an impressive 10kg cutdown over iPhone SE 2020. The fact that the newer iPhone SE’s base storage configuration is double that of the original iPhone SE suggests that the latest iPhone SE 2022 is a tad more sustainable.

iPhone Devices Compared by Emissions

In the early days 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 total lifetime carbon footprint of an iPhone.

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, tin and gold, and eliminating plastic from packaging and internal build. However, the reality shows us something quite different. The table below illustrates that the more premium iPhones are becoming, the higher their carbon emissions grow. With the biggest storage of 1TB, the iPhone 14 Pro Max has the largest carbon footprint ever. The situation with the latest iPhone 15 series is more positive, and Apple achieved a reduction of 5.6kg of CO2-e across the lineup. Nevertheless, the iPhone SE 2022, launched as an "affordable iPhone", is the only recent iPhone with the lowest lifetime 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

The table above ranks iPhone devices in descending order by total carbon emissions and as you can see, the iPhone 14 Pro Max 1TB broke all the records of CO2 across Apple’s lineup since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007.

Where Do iPhone Emissions Come From?

Manufacturing and Distribution

The packaging and distribution of ready devices amounts to only 8% 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 2023 that 65% of company’s carbon footprint comes from the production, with significant proportion 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 14 emissions reported by Apple and broken down by production, transportation, use and end-of-life.

Among the latest iPhones released by Apple in 2022, the new iPhone 14 Pro Max has the most CO2 emissions generated in production compared to rest of the lineup. Surprisingly, Apple reports the biggest carbon footprint percentage at the use stage for the iPhone 14 and 14 Plus.

Relevant reading:

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. Yes and no, and it depends how you look at it. 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 iPhone 14 series causes only in the region of 17% (~14kg of CO2-e) of their total lifetime carbon footprint.

What Apple factors into their product carbon emissions' figures during use stage is device's use of power over 3-4 years. Basically, how long the iPhone lasts on one charge and how much energy it requires to recharge over time. However, how we use iPhones is not limited to only charging them. We send emails and texts, stream videos, play games and many other things, so energy consumption extends beyond the need for charging an iPhone. Mike Berners-Lee, pretty smart guy if you ask us, thoerises the real figure of carbon footprint of a smartphone usage in his latest edition of How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint Of Everything (2020). Mike Berners-Lee's calculations suggest 69kg of CO2 per year using the phone for 3 hours and 25 minutes a day. As you can see the true figure is far higher than what Apple reports which is only a fraction and understandingly is connected to the iPhone's direct use of power to work and does not account for emissions of data centres and networks that are an important part in making iPhones usable. So the main takeaway is if you want to reduce your phone's carbon footprint it might be worth making less calls over the internet-based apps as networks use less energy and clear out your cloud account that might be storing hundreds of similar selfies and no longer needed screenshots.

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 still be receiving the latest iOS updates? If we 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. Selling 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 negative impact on the environment.

Relevant reading:

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 and use stages, is a concern. It is therefore 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

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