Responsible iPhone Ownership
An Environmentalist’s Dilemma
For the past 20 years, I have been what you would call an early adopter, purchasing new gadgets (including new iPhones starting with the iPhone 3G) as soon as I could get my hands on them. After studying ecology for the past couple of years, however, I have slowly become more aware of how consumerism affects the environment. I love Apple for a whole host of reasons, but I have fused my affection for new technology with a respect for sustainable practices. In that spirit, I decided to examine the lifecyle of the iPhone from manufacture to disposal to learn how Apple enthusiasts like myself can maximize earth-friendly practices while continuing to enjoy new technology. Here, I'll share my findings.
An iPhone Is Born
If you look closely, you'll find the words “Designed by Apple in California” etched on to the back of most iPhones. But where is the iconic smartphone actually manufactured? While the text “Assembled in China” also appears on the back of the iPhone, in reality components for the device are manufactured by over 200 suppliers in facilities around the world, accord-
ing to Apple. Unlike personal electronics companies such as Samsung who manufacture many of their own parts, Apple's supply chain is extremely complex.
With such varied sources, how does Apple ensure environmental safety, adequate labor conditions, and fair treatment of workers from such varied sources? Apple hasn't always had the best track record, especially at Foxconn, the giant assembly plant in China that has a history marked by harsh working conditions, child labor, and employee suicides.
However, Apple's reputation is changing dramatically under CEO Tim Cook's leadership. Cook has expanded efforts to audit each step in Apple's supply chain. According to Apple's 2017 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, the company conducted 705 audits of facilities in 2016, the most of any year so far. In 2016, Apple removed 22 smelters (which mine and refine raw materials used in iPhones, such as cobalt, tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold) from its supply chain. These smelters are notorious for unloading massive amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere, often causing acid rain. The impacts of unchecked smelters are felt in our rivers, streams, oceans, forests, soil, and water supplies. Apple now requires sources to meet strict guidelines and has vowed to continue working only with smelters who meet its high standards.
In response to efforts such as these, Greenpeace has heralded Apple as the greenest tech company in the world for the past three years. Apple also has impressive plans for the future. Currently, Apple uses 96 percent renewable energy for its data centers, facilities, and retails stores. By 2020, Apple has vowed to reach 100 percent sustainably sourced energy and is also working to switch partners in its supply chain to renewable energy.
Apple also has plans to move away from mining entirely, aiming instead to make all new iPhones from recycled materials by expanding recycling technologies for aluminum to include tin and copper. As far as paper and packaging, Apple announced it has successfully achieved 99 percent sustainable sourcing through responsibly managed paper, bamboo, and sugarcane waste.
A Day in the Life
While the sustainability of iPhone production falls on Apple, the responsibility passes on to us as consumers as soon as we purchase a device. The iPhone has become intimately integrated in our approach to daily life. We wake up to it, we say goodnight to it, and our hands reach for it multiple times per hour throughout the day. One key resource we use to keep our iPhones alive and in service is electricity. When we plug our devices in to a wall outlet at home or work, 65 percent of that power comes from fossil fuels, according to the US Energy Information Agency.
Adjusting the source of your iPhone's juice to solar can displace daily charging from your energy bill and sweep clean your conscience just by knowing you have a sun-powered iPhone. At less than $50, the Anker 15W Dual USB PowerPort Solar Charger is a great option that comes with two ports and charges at the ideal 2.1 amps under direct sunlight.
Here's another factor to consider. Just think about how many devices the iPhone has eliminated from most of our lives: HD cameras, GPS devices, calculators, voice recorders, mp3 players, video players, clocks, alarm clocks, pedometers, calendars, handheld gaming devices, flashlights, internet browsing devices, and a whole host of other devices that third-party apps can replace. When we consider all the electricity, plastics, chargers, metals, packaging, and manufacturing we eliminate simply by owning one device, we must take a moment to pat ourselves on the back and praise Apple's untiring commitment to making other devices obsolete. Even without solar charging, you are doing the world a service by using the greatest gadget killer in history.
“Greenpeace has heralded Apple as the greenest tech company in the world for the past three years.”
A Respectable, Reusable Retirement
After serving time as our go-to devices for almost everything, eventually our iPhones begin to show their electronic age. We update the iOS, we update apps, and we (gasp) put a few dings, dents, scratches, and cracks on our battle-ravaged tech tool. Some of us upgrade every year while others clutch an aged-generation iPhone as long as it will turn on. While I used to be an early adopter, I now see the value of buying used iPhones. If we can delay gratification a bit and buy used, we can be certain we are buying items on our own terms and help cut down on energy and material use.
Holding on to an iPhone for as long as possible is the environmentally sustainable move, but how long is too long? The general consensus is about three years. Wait longer, and the battery starts to seriously degrade, the hardware doesn't quite match the iOS anymore, and a host of other issues begin making the iPhone a source of frustration instead of joy.
A Peaceful Passing: Is There iPhone Life After iPhone Death?
When the day finally comes to upgrade your iPhone, you have several options of what to do with your retired device. If it's still functioning, selling locally is best. Otherwise, trade-in services such as Gazelle, Swappa, and Glyde will pay you fast in cash or gift cards with minimal hassle and effort. Finally, you can always look to eBay for a community of millions who are buying and selling all day long, every day.
If your device is damaged or non-functional, you can take advantage of Apple's Renew program, which accepts items in any condition to responsibly recycle. Apple's head of environmental affairs said Apple has reclaimed and recycled 85 percent of what it sold 7 years prior, an impressive feat considering the industry average for 7 years before is 70 percent. But what does Apple do with your old iPhone? First, they determine if they can repair it and resell it into the used market. If the iPhone is beyond repair, they remove valuable components such as the LCD screen, camera, and processor for sale into the component marketplace. Apple's two deconstructor robots named Liam can take apart 2.4 million iPhones per year. Any leftover pieces are then actually recycled. Apple does its best to recycle everything in North America, but officially, the company doesn't disclose what ultimately happens to any of the broken-down components.
For non-Apple trade-in services accepting iPhones for recycling, this process is a little different. Without state of the art equipment, these other companies are generally in the business of selling busted iPhones at wholesale. These iPhones are not likely to be broken down for parts here in the states by these companies.
As a student of sustainability, I am becoming more aware of the impact of the purchases I make. As environmentally conscious as I try to be by buying local, buying used, and avoiding the trap of product obsolescence whether planned or perceived, I still managed to rack up 72 orders on Amazon in 2016. Having a deeper awareness about how our products are made is important, but life demands balance. I know if I spent all of my time stressing about where every last item in my life came from, or feeling guilty and ashamed when it finally arrived, I would drive myself insane. Having a global consumer market provides a convenience that pays incalculable time dividends in our busy lives. Over the last 200 years, we have pushed the tolerance of the environment in the name of a better quality of life. Now, we are shifting toward finding better ways to continue to make innovative products in a more thoughtful way that takes into account all the repercussions of our actions. By taking these steps, we can care about the environment and continue our love of new technology.
“Apple’s two deconstructor robots named Liam can take apart 2.4 million iPhones per year.”