Environmental Impact of the iPhone

The iPhone is a game-changer: we are so hooked on these devices that we upgrade them faster than any other piece of tech. This article will look at just how damaging our iPhone addiction is to the environment.

All those upgrades translate to a lot of sales: Apple sold 218 million smartphones worldwide in 2018.

There are three main ways that smartphones have an environmental impact: the CO2 emissions of producing each piece of an iPhone, the environmental damage caused by rare earth elements mining, and e-waste.

We’ll explore each of these separately.

How Much Carbon Dioxide is Produced By Manufacturing the iPhone?

This question is the easiest to answer, thanks to Apple’s own environmental data, which can be found for each of Apple’s products on their environment page (scroll all the way to the bottom).

These reports include the total amount of greenhouse emissions (measured in kilograms of CO2-equivalent) generated by their products, based on the materials that make up each phone, and the specifics of the manufacturing process.

Looking at each phone on its own, the iPhone SE is the most kind to the environment, at 45 kg of CO2 emissions, and the iPhone X, at 79 kg of CO2-equivalent is the hardest on the environment.

These numbers are for the lowest memory option for each phone. We were surprised by how big of an effect memory has on emissions: an iPhone 8 64 GB generates 57 kg, and an iPhone 8 256 GB generates 81 kg – that’s a 42 percent increase!

We crunched some numbers and estimate that the average phone sold last year represented about 80 kg of CO2-equivalent. Multiply that by the 218 million iPhones that Apple sold in 2018 and that works out to 17.4 billion kg of CO2-equivalent. In climate-science-speak, that’s 17.4 megatons of CO2-equivalent.

That sounds like an awful lot, but we weren’t really sure what that to compare that to, so we punched it into the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalency Calculator (here).

17.4 megatons of CO2 is the same carbon impact as 3.7 million cars being driven for a year, or 285 million trees being planted and grown for 10 years.

Gulp.

How do the Rare Earth Elements in an iPhone affect the environment?

Not sure what a Rare Earth Element is? We weren’t either.

Turns out that it’s all in the name: they’re a group of metals that are, well, rare, and are used in manufacturing many of the most complex pieces of technology that we use every day.

The iPhone uses 3 of these elements (neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium) in their speakers, cameras and touchscreens.

Since these elements are so rare, they are difficult to mine, and unfortunately, impossible to recycle.

They used to be mined in North America, but competition from China combined with environmental concerns led to those mines being closed. Since then, mining has concentrated in pit mines in China, which have come under fire for their environmental impact.

Apple doesn’t tell us exactly how much of these materials are in each of their phones, but if we understood their Environmental Report, it’s less than a gram per phone.

But remember, these are RARE Earth Elements, so even small amounts have a big environmental impact. Global demand for iPhones (and smartphones generally) is the source of a lot of demand for the elements produced at these mines. As a result, they also are the cause of much of the environmental damage that the mines cause.

What about the eWaste that we’re producing by upgrading our iPhones all the time?

Electronic Waste – or eWaste as it’s more commonly known – is the world’s fastest growing type of waste. eWaste is a bigger issue than other kinds of waste because electronics are full of toxic materials (like rare earth elements) that leach out into the environment as they decay.

This is a big problem: think about how often you and your family and friends renew your various devices. Then multiply that by a couple billion and you’ll start to realize just how much eWaste the world is creating.

In fact, the total eWaste generated in 2016 has been estimated at 44.7 billion kilograms – or roughly 6 kilos for every human alive today!

Developed countries have begun tackling this problem by passing laws and building facilities that can handle eWaste.

But we’ve still got a long way to go: in North America, only 20% of the eWaste we’re producing is being properly recycled.

So what happens to the rest? That’s the million-dollar environmental question. The short answer is that no one is really sure. There are basically 3 outcomes:

  • Best case: you’re like us and store most of your eWaste at home in a box or drawer of used electronics. Not the tidiest solution, but it’ll do for now.
  • Medium case: the devices are mixed in with garbage, end up in landfills where the toxic materials leach into the environment.
  • Worst case: this waste winds up in the third world, where the world’s poor wind up harvesting it in incredibly unsafe conditions (eWaste is toxic after all!) in order to recover the tiny amounts of precious materials in these electronics

So what can you do?

Environmental challenges can feel overwhelming, but the problems are solved one responsible act at a time.

The single best thing that you can do to mitigate the environmental impact of your smartphone is to take steps to reduce the number of devices that are being produced.

There are two ways to do that: keep your current phone for longer, or buy a used device.
Buying used is easier than you think! We built Orchard to make it simple for people to buy high-quality used smartphones, and do their part for the environment.

If you must have the latest and greatest, make sure that you are disposing of your technology in an environmentally responsible way.

The best is to resell it to family or friends (or companies like Orchard) or at the very least ensure that you drop it off at a dedicated electronics recycling location – there are more of them than you think.

Finally, whether you’re buying new or used, if your phone ever gets damaged, get it repaired instead of replacing it!

Other ideas for managing the environmental impact of iPhones? Let us know in the comments!

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