iWaste: The iPhone Environmental Impact
Apple reported 74.8 million iPhones sold in Q1 2016 — many of these replaced older models for the prime spot in your purse or pocket. So what happens to those old iPhones once they’re replaced with the shiny new model? Let’s look at the iPhone environmental impact from manufacturing to storefront.
The Manufacturing Impact
Apple reports that 77% of the greenhouse emissions they produce comes from the manufacturing process alone. Only 17% of emissions are produced from actual product usage by the consumer. Interestingly enough, 100% of Apple data centres run on renewable energy sources, meaning Siri, iMessage and other iCloud features have zero impact on climate change.
Newer iPhones are Less Harmful
One of the good things about the latest iPhones is that they have less harmful elements than ever before. Apple most recently removed beryllium from the iPhone, as well as removing benzene and n-hexene (linked to leukemia and nerve damage respectively) from final assembly lines in their factories.
Some older models however aren’t built to the same standard – and these are the ones that are reaching the very end of their useful life. This makes it even more important to understand the effects that all old electronics have, and to ensure that we as individuals do our part to minimize their impact.
The Problem with E-Waste
Electronic waste (or e-waste) includes all of the discarded televisions, computers, cellphones, and other electronics that have passed their prime. According to iFixit, more than 20 million tons of e-waste are produced every year.
While all waste is bad, e-waste is especially problematic as it often contains harmful chemicals like mercury, lead and arsenic. If not properly disposed of properly, these can end up leaching into ground water, or harm unknowing workers scavenging for precious metals like gold also contained inside.
At the very end of its life, a lot of e-waste, as Jay Greene from CNET found, ends up across the globe either refurbished, resold, or simply trashed due to poor regulations. Often, it ends up being stripped down for scraps using harmful methods. In the best of cases, it gets recycled properly – but some of the materials, plastics especially, aren’t as easy to recycle as your ketchup bottle.
Liam the Recycling Robot
At the March 2016 Keynote, we were introduced to Apple’s new research robot named Liam. He’s a 29-armed robot designed specifically for the task of deconstructing and recycling iPhones. Liam is capable of taking apart 1.2 million iPhones each year, providing an environmentally friendly solution for all those old models sitting out there. Customers can send their old devices through the Apple Renew program, and in some cases you might even get some money back.
Liam looks like he might be a close cousin to WALL-E and he’s got a bit of a personality too. Check out the video below:
Apple Facilities Go Green
In 2014, Apple set a huge goal for itself: running all company facilities on 100% renewable energy. Currently, Apple is up to 93% of all facilities running on renewable energy and they are working hard with partners across the globe to build infrastructure that will make their goal achievable.
Apple Stores worldwide are powered by 97% renewable energy, but they decided to go one step further. Stores recently made the switch from the iconic drawstring plastic bags to more environmentally friendly paper bags. As of April 15, Apple Stores were instructed to use up their last supply of plastic bags to make way for the greener paper bags.
And what about all the packaging Apple uses for its devices? Well, Apple reported that 99% of its product packaging comes from recycled paper and sustainably managed forests. No doubt Apple is working on an innovative way to improve their iconic packaging even further.
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The Upgrade Cycle
We have to remember that harmful components aren’t the only things that contribute to the iPhone environmental impact. Perhaps the biggest issue is the constant cycle of upgrading to the latest and greatest tech.
The idea that iPhone owners should upgrade their device is reinforced from multiple angles. On one hand, Apple arguably created the cycle by releasing a new iPhone every year. Major design changes are saved for every second year, making devices look obsolete, even if they still work perfectly. On the other hand carrier contracts last just two years, after which upgrades are eagerly encouraged to get consumers to re-sign a contract. Despite the strides Apple has taken with the environment in mind, this constant cycle will always have consequences for Mother Earth.
If a device is used to its absolute potential – the environmental costs of manufacturing are at least a bit more justified. Devices in good condition can be sold to someone who doesn’t need the latest device. Slightly damaged iPhones can often be fixed for a reasonable price, or by yourself thanks to guides produced by websites like iFixit.
Time to Recycle
If your iPhone is genuinely beyond repair, it’s time to recycle it – but make sure you do it responsibly. In fact, we bring all of our e-waste to Free Geek Toronto – you can find out why in our FAQs. Free Geek is our favourite place to recycle e-waste, but you can also check out these great options to recycle your old tech:
Interested to learn more? We’ve broken down the environmental impacts of smartphones in even greater detail in a new post. Check that out here: Environmental Impact of the iPhone.