How wasteful is the smartphone industry?

HOW GREEN is the latest iPhone? Apple has just released the iPhones 5S and 5C. The 5S is encased in aluminium with a carbon footprint of 70kg. The 5C is Apple’s first mid-range iPhone, with a plastic casing and carbon footprint of 60kg. About three quarters of the carbon emitted on these handsets’ behalf is due to the manufacturing process.

Apple is not a wasteful company by reputation. CEO Tim Cook has emphasised sustainability as his priority both in terms of business efficiency and environmentalism. So what’s going on with these iPhones? Considering the millions of units Apple will ship, the carbon increase is worth discussing.

Across the world, people upgrade their phones at different rates. In the UK, US and Canada, the norm is just under two years. In continental Europe the trend is to do so every three or four. In Japan and Korea the behaviour is comparable to North America. Meanwhile, Asian and South America are rapidly moving to a more disposable culture.


80% of the world’s iPhones are sold in the US, where phones last just two years.

If Apple wanted to create truly sustainable technology it would have to retain its glamour over a longer period of time. If you were in marketing you could say that instead of envy and lust, Apple would have to weave romance and love. Actually it comes down to battery life: in the past few decades of increased microprocessing power there has been no breakthrough in battery technology. With data migrating to the cloud, the promise of longer battery life would be tantalising. If you were in marketing you might call it immortality.

 Another solution that would make communication technology less wasteful is a modular phone that could be tricked out to reflect each user’s particular behaviour. As individual parts fail they would be replaced. At present, individual part failures often means the handset is discarded. A start-up called Phonebloks is introducing this idea.

Meanwhile, Fairphone produces open platform smartphones from ‘conflict free’ materials. Customers can tinker with their handsets as they please and know for sure from where in the world its parts come.


If millions of items are churned into existence, what happens when those items are rendered obsolete?

Industries should be sustainable. If technology cannot be dismantled and reused it becomes worse than useless, a waste of finite materials. A reuse and recycling industry has been fed by our appetite for mobile technology. Smartphones contain lithium, gold, neodymium and rare earths. 2.5 million tons of electronics were discarded in just the US in 2010. Green Technology Solutions (GTSO) “plan to send it to the bank” according to CEO Paul Watson. There are other companies trying to make the US smartphone industry into a circular economy. ecoATM has kiosks that can refurbish 75% of electronic devices. The Wireless Alliance collects around 80,000 handsets every month.

Like anything coveted by people and then discarded, there is rarely anything wrong with old smartphones. Anytime new smartphones are developed and marketed to some of us, the rest can expect an upgrade too. If this is accurate, the cycle time between smartphones of two years, or however long, will remain the same. When phones become too obsolete even to serve as hand-me-downs, they will be dismantled and their parts reused. So long as it’s 100% reliable, this process of technological renewal would be like the natural decay you see on a forest floor. The difference is that it’s not.


Thank you to Business Green, the New Yorker and Phone Arena for some of the above quotations. Most of the data in this article comes from 2010.

Picture thanks to team8ab, on Flickr


article written by David Thomas, writer at The Eco Experts

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Hello, I'm David. I write about energy efficiency and about the solar industry for websites and The Eco Experts. Skips rope and eats bread.

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