Why the iPhone May Be the Greenest Technology We’ve Ever Seen

What is the environmental impact of a smartphone? Turns out the news is good: From production to use to recycling, these phones are the little engines that could.make a difference.

Casually mention the environmental impact of the iPhone and most of us instinctively take a step back. Apple’s objects of desire can be painful enough to the credit card—or even your children. One recent study by the CDC saw a 12 percent rise in nonfatal injuries to children between 2007 and 2010, with experts saying the distraction of smartphones was to blame. We have been conditioned to expect that the things we enjoy the most are the worst for the environment. But not in this case. This is a story you want to hear.

Start turning over stones at each stage of the iPhone’s life—from the first extraction of minerals in the mines of South Africa or Montana, to the time the gadget spends in your hands, to its demise in the maw of a shredder—and underneath nearly all is a piece of good news. Over the last five years, the electronics industry has pivoted radically, with dramatic and continual improvements in the toxicity of the materials used to manufacture our devices, the amount of energy they consume, their ability to be reused and recycled, and the transparency of their corporate processes—with Apple and the iPhone leading the pack. The outcome isn’t yet perfect, but it points topotential improvements in environmental impacts such as we haven’t seen before. The trend is overwhelmingly positive. “We’re no longer arguing over the efficacy of a green direction,” acknowledges Greenpeace’s Casey Harrell. “There’s a ton of good people in every IT company we work with, who are working tirelessly to really look at systems change.

Consider usage: Charging the iPhone 5 each day requires about 3.5 kilowatt hours per year. This is about 1/3,000th of a typical household’s electricity usage, or about $0.41 per year. In other words, it’s negligible—and about 1/100th the amount of energy used by a plasma TV over the same year. When you put this in terms of the emissions of greenhouse gases, and the efficiency is even more startling. Apple estimates that using an iPhone for three years can be expected to produce about 13.5 kilograms of CO2—about the same emissions as a gallon and a half of gas. “Since the 1970s, energy load from appliances and consumer electronics has grown significantly,” points out Barry Fischer of Opower, a company that measures and analyzes household electricity use, and which recently studied the power habits of the iPhone 5. “But in the next thirty years, that slice of the pie will shrink as we switch from larger traditional devices”—like desktop PCs and large screen television—“to these smaller, more portable, more energy efficient ones. This truly is an epochal change,” Fischer adds. “We are using our smartphones more and more to get the same type of content and functionality but at a dramatically lower energy cost.”

Yet the most remarkable environmental component of that is also the most obvious:  there just isn’t much to an iPhone. The basic fact of its small size has positive repercussions throughout its life—a trend the geeks call “dematerialization.” You get a visceral sense for it in Westchester County, New York, just a few miles from the Bronx line, inside a concrete building that happens to be the largest accredited electronics recycling location in the country. Each day, tractor-trailer trucks back up to the loading docks at WeRecycle, leaving behind discarded printers, TVs, computers and mobile phones. As these gadgets move through conveyor belts and into giant twin-bladed shredders, powerful magnets lift out metallic materials, while human pickers pull out any missed pieces. Lined up in rows are giant “Super Sacks” filled with the separated materials—aluminum ingots, or green circuit boards, ready to be smelted down to the precious metals deep inside: gold, silver, platinum, palladium. At the moment, WeRecycle sees very few iPhones come through the door, but given that Apple has sold nearly 100 million iPhones in the US alone since 2007—and estimates their lifespan at three years—one would expect they’ll be here soon.

Charging the iPhone 5 requires about 1/3,000th of a household’s electricity usage—about $0.41 a year.

But when they do come, their impact on the e-waste stream as a whole will be negligible. The EPA estimates mobile phones as a category to represent less than 1 percent of e-waste by weight. Tossed into a pile, those 100 million iPhones would weigh about 15,000 tons—as much as 30 fully loaded 747s. (And indeed, their small size and trim packaging makes them easier to airfreight.) A large amount, but still only a drop in the bucket of the 2.37 million tons of e-waste produced annually. There’s no doubt our lives are dominated by screens like never before. Except now those screens are likely to be just 4” across—in contrast with the bulky CRT’s of just a few years ago, each of which might contain three pounds of lead. From a potential impact point of view, it’s a massive improvement.

The trouble is, no phone is small enough if it’s not recycled properly—under the watchful eyes of domestic manufacturing and recycling communities. The United States disposes more than 2 million tons of electronics each year, and only a fraction of e-waste ends up in facilities like WeRecycle, which operates under a certification known as “E-Steward.” Three-quarters of it ends up in landfills, where it leaches toxic chemicals, and much of the remainder is shipped abroad, sometimes illegally, to be dissembled (in the worst case scenario) by a child over an open coal fire. In Guiyu, China, for example—infamous as an e-waste cesspool—88 percent of children to suffer from lead poisoning. It’s here that Apple’s removal of the most toxic chemicals from the newest iPhone’s makes a difference: the screen backlight no longer contains mercury, and brominated flame retardants (which contain a powerful neurotoxin) have been substituted for safer materials. Those are both changes in the last several years. 2012 has seen a similar about-face in regards to labor and environmental violations at Apple’s supplier factories in China. Following massively heightened scrutiny, the Fair Labor Association’s August 2012 status report on Foxconn, put the manufacturer ahead of schedule in making changes.

It’s a reminder that the iPhone—however light it gets—is the product of a vast global clockwork of moving pieces, with hundreds of thousands of people in hundreds of companies contributing to its creation. And it’s in fact the global nature of the iPhone that creates the greatest environmental challenges. Understanding the journey of that thing in your hand requires kind of thought exercise that would have been the stuff of science fiction a few years ago—from the mine in South Africa or Canada where the precious minerals in its circuit board were extracted from the earth, to the factory in Japan that made its glowing screen, to its assembly in China, its shipment back across the ocean in the belly of a 747, to its (brief) time in our hands, to its eventual demise. This entire manufacturing process causes energy uses—known as “embodied energy”—that far exceed our the every usage numbers. In the case of the iPhone 5, that number is actually five times as much as the energy it uses in our hands, and accounts for 76 percent of the device’s total greenhouse gas emissions, assuming three years of use. But the total greenhouse gas emission over its lifespan remains small: 75 kg of CO2, about less than 10% the amount emitted flying roundtrip across the country.

The changes in the last several years have left groups like Greenpeace focusing their attention on a different issue. They say the question, “how much better can it be” can only be answered with a major rethinking of the entire notion of a smartphone you buy and keep for two years. What’s left is what Greenpeace’s Casey Harrell describes as “the elephant in the room”: planned obsolescence itself. “As we move to a more tablet and smartphone world, that’s great, but not if we now have a life where everybody has each of these things—an iPhone, a tablet, a desktop, a plasma, and an e-reader,” says Harrell. “Sure, the 5 is less power hungry, but what’s the cumulative impact?”

In addition to the phone’s lifespan, we also need to consider all the other machines each iPhone relies on. It’s impossible to come to terms with its impacts without considering the network behind it. The iPhone is the leading example of a macro-trend in our use of computers and household electronics, towards smaller, multi-purpose devices that use astonishingly small amounts of electricity—while offloading the storage and processing of data to giant data centers. There again, our instincts can deceive us. Stanford-based researched Jon Koomey recalls one early—and incorrect—study that suggested that information technology is responsible for 50 percent of all energy usage, a number many people find plausible. The real number is closer to 2 percent of electricity usage. “This is not a huge crisis,” he points out. “It comes back to that confusion of economic importance and value and resource use. We need to weight the value being delivered against this environmental cost.” Crucial to the calculation is the net positive impact of IT more generally—the energy saved by downloading an album compared to shipping a CD, for example. And it’s that ability that has allowed for the “dematerialization” of our devices more broadly—to stream music or movies from online services, rather than storing CDs or DVDs at home.

“These devices need to be driving bigger behavioral changes than dematerialization,” says Harrell. “They need to change how we relate to each other and our communities. Dematerialization isn’t the biggest wedge—travel is far bigger. Otherwise we’re just nibbling at the edges.” That’s the shift waiting to happen: towards the ultimate device, the one that is the last one you’ll ever buy—manufactured close to home. But for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to imagine WeRecycle’s giant shredders going hungry.