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 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?
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 78.15 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 250 million iPhone units in fiscal year of 2021 and this changes the entire picture. Carrying out some calculations leaves us with 19.54 megatons of CO2-e to be created by iPhones in 2021 alone. In order to neutralise these emissions, 4,065 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 growing trend of total carbon emissions per iPhone since the iPhone 4S released in 2011.
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.
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 Model||Total CO2 Emissions (KG)||Rank (highest to lowest)|
|iPhone 11 Pro Max 512GB||111||1|
|iPhone 12 Pro Max 512GB||110||2|
|iPhone 6 Plus*||110||2|
|iPhone 11 Pro 512GB||107||4|
|iPhone 12 Pro 512GB||107||4|
|iPhone XS Max 512GB||106||6|
|iPhone XS 512GB||99||7|
|iPhone 11 Pro Max 256GB||97||8|
|iPhone 12 Pro Max 256GB||96||9|
|iPhone 11 Pro 256GB||93||12|
|iPhone 12 Pro 256GB||93||12|
|iPhone X 256GB||93||12|
|iPhone XS Max 256GB||91||14|
|iPhone 11 256GB||87||15|
|iPhone 12 256GB||87||15|
|iPhone 12 Pro Max 128GB||86||17|
|iPhone XS 256GB||85||18|
|iPhone 12 Pro 128GB||82||19|
|iPhone 8 Plus 256GB||82||19|
|iPhone 11 Pro Max 64GB||80||21|
|iPhone 12 Mini 256GB||80||21|
|iPhone X 64GB||79||23|
|iPhone XS Max 64GB||77||24|
|iPhone 11 Pro 64GB||76||25|
|iPhone XR 256GB||76||25|
|iPhone 11 128GB||75||27|
|iPhone 12 128GB||75||27|
|iPhone 7 Plus 128GB||74||29|
|iPhone SE (2020) 256GB||73||30|
|iPhone 8 256GB||71||31|
|iPhone 11 64GB||70||34|
|iPhone 12 64GB||70||34|
|iPhone 6S Plus 128GB||70||34|
|iPhone XS 64GB||70||34|
|iPhone 12 Mini 128GB||69||37|
|iPhone 8 Plus 64GB||68||38|
|iPhone 7 Plus 32GB||67||39|
|iPhone XR 128GB||67||39|
|iPhone 12 Mini 64GB||64||41|
|iPhone 6S Plus 32GB||63||42|
|iPhone 7 128GB||63||42|
|iPhone SE (2020) 128GB||62||44|
|iPhone XR 64GB||62||44|
|iPhone 6S 128GB||61||46|
|iPhone SE 128GB||60||47|
|iPhone 8 64GB||57||48|
|iPhone SE (2020) 64GB||57||48|
|iPhone 7 32GB||56||50|
|iPhone 6S 32GB||54||52|
|iPhone SE 32GB||54||52|
*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.
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 2021 that 71% 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 emissions reported by Apple and broken down by production, transportation, use and end-of-life.
Among the latest iPhones released by Apple in 2020, the new iPhone SE demonstrates a significant drop in mining and production emissions compared to the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 series. Behind the iPhone SE 2020 having the lowest carbon footprint among the latest iPhones is the fact that the upgraded SE 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 down.
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 12 series causes only in the region of 13% (11kg 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. 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 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.
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 impact on the environment.
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.
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