Apple’s new slate of iPhones will feature more recycled materials. Nevertheless, the culture of consumption that surrounds smartphones is having a disastrous effect on the environment.
During a live event Wednesday, Apple AAPL, -1.14% announced its newest iPhone models: The XS, the XS Max and the XR. The phones, which range in price from $750 to more than $1,100, will feature logic boards made out of recycled tin — a nod to the tech giant’s efforts toward improved sustainability and mining-free supply chain. That move will reduce the amount of tin mined for smartphones by 10,000 tons every year, the company said.
Apple executives also detailed others steps the Cupertino, Calif.-based company is taking to improve its environmental footprint. In particular, the company is ramping up its smartphone recycling program. Consumers can send their iPhones to Apple. If in good condition, the company will resell them and pay back the consumer. Otherwise, Apple’s robot arm, named Daisy, will disassemble to recycle the parts for free.
*The new efforts build on previous initiatives at Apple toward becoming more eco-friendly. Apple previously said it’s transitioning to 100% recycled tin solder for logic boards in the iPhone 6S.
Consumers are churning through smartphones
There have been 7.1 billion smartphones manufactured since 2007, according to Greenpeace — enough to equip nearly every person in the world with a device. Yet newer devices like the iPhone XS continue to be produced as consumers seek out updated and improved models.
“It’s magnifying the problem very significantly,” said Alex Sebastian, co-founder of Orchard, a Canadian company that resells smartphones. “If you look at a computer, most people use it until it’s unusable. But people have gotten used to new updates to the phone every one to two years.”
It’s largely thanks to the pace at which companies like Apple and Samsung 005930, +4.09% release new smartphone models that consumers don’t hold on to a device for long. The average age of a smartphone traded in between April 2017 and June 2017 was 2.58 years, according to data collected by HYLA Mobile, a device trade-in company. Traded-in iPhones tended to be slightly older — partly because they are typically the most expensive on the market.
‘If you look at a computer, most people use it until it’s unusable. But people have gotten used to new updates to the phone every one to two years.’
Unfortunately, few people recycle their smartphones when they purchase replacements. A 2014 study from the United Nations University, the UN’s research arm, estimated that less than 16% of e-waste is recycled. That same study calculated that 3 million metric tons of e-waste was produced in 2014 alone. Much of that waste goes into landfills or is shipped to developing countries to be taken apart to reclaim the metals held within.
But when handled improperly, there’s a high likelihood that heavy metals such as cobalt or tungsten will leech into groundwater and cause adverse health effects. “There’s no way of getting rid of a heavy metal,” said Sue Williams, a documentary maker and director of “Death by Design,” a film that looks into the environmental impact of technology.
Heavy metals that are burned when smartphones are melted down, for instance, add to the atmospheric pollution that scientists say is contributing to climate change. The air pollution in China is also associated with adverse health consequences, as the Washington Post and others have reported.
Mining metal for smartphones can devastate ecosystems
But smartphones don’t just create pollution when they are discarded. The mining of the metals needed to create them can devastate ecosystems. The world’s largest producer of cobalt, which is used in the rechargeable lithium ion batteries found in smartphones and other electronics, is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Cobalt mining companies regularly flout the country’s laws meant to protect natural resources and citizens, according to research by the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations (known as SOMO), an independent, nonprofit research and network organization. Consequently, wastewater from cobalt mines has polluted drinking-water resources in the country, SOMO found.
Other issues beyond pollution persist in mining practices in developing countries. In the DRC, for instance, child labor is common, and proceeds from mining operations are used to fuel ongoing conflicts in the country, according to an investigation by the Washington Post. In March, Apple said it would temporarily cease buying cobalt mined by hand in Congo.
It’s an uphill battle for environmentalists. Despite the deeply concerning environmental ramifications, smartphones have become a necessary evil. Nearly one-third of people said they now interact with their smartphones more than with friends and family, according to a report last year from Bank of America.
Carbon emissions is another smartphone-related problem
Additionally, the vast majority (73%) of carbon dioxide associated with smart devices is emitted during manufacturing, according to Greenpeace. “It’s not possible to make an electronic device that’s environmentally friendly,” said Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit. “We’re very far away from that.”
‘It’s not possible to make an electronic device that’s environmentally friendly.’
Some believe Apple could be doing more to address its environmental impact. The choice to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 likely added further to e-waste as older earbuds became obsolete without a new adapter, Wiens said.
The AirPods wireless earbuds are powered by a rechargeable battery — but Wiens said that battery cannot be replaced. Traditional headphones use wiring and magnets that are easily recyclable, he said. (Apple did not return a request for comment regarding this matter.)
There are ways to extend the life of your smartphone
Consumers can take steps to ensure their smartphone use is as environmentally sound as possible. Putting the phone on airplane mode whenever feasible will conserve energy and extend the battery’s life — as will making sure that the device does not overheat when charging.
Additionally, smartphones can outlive their original batteries. Consumers can take a device to the original retailer, get the battery replaced by an independent repair shop or even do it themselves. Old batteries can be disposed of at many hardware stores and electronics retailers such as Best Buy, Wiens added. (Consumers should check their warranty before going to an independent repair shop or making fixes themselves, however.)
“The best thing you can do with your phone is not to let it sit in a drawer or throw it out but to sell it immediately,” said Wiens. Not taking that action opens a door to the risk that the device will get too out-of-style to be refurbished, meaning it could become 100% e-waste.
For those who don’t want to exert the effort of researching prices and selling their used phone, Sebastian recommended contacting charities. Many charitable organizations will give previously owned smart devices to people in need if the device is still working, ensuring an extended life for it.
As for recycling, consumers are best off going through major retailers such as Best Buy BBY, -0.22% and Amazon AMZN, -0.99% or manufacturers such as Apple and LG 066570, +0.84% They can also find a legitimate local recycler through the Consumer Technology Association.
A recent report from the Basel Action Network, a nongovernmental organization combatting the export of toxic waste from technology, found myriad companies running scams where they claim to recycle devices properly but instead ship them to developing countries where they are dismantled improperly.
Consumers who purchase new devices should also research their environmental footprint. United Laboratories, a global independent safety science company, recently established standards for “green electronics” that are more environmentally friendly. Thus far, Samsung is the only smartphone manufacturer to receive the new certification. (Samsung did not immediately return a request for comment.)
Why all might not be lost
While smartphones certainly have an adverse impact on the environment, there are silver linings to their adoption, according to a report from the Consumer Technology Association. For starters, smartphones represent only a fraction of the electronic waste that’s been produced historically.
Plus, they use fewer materials (as compared with items like cathode-ray televisions). And because smartphones can perform many functions, they have replaced the need to have separate devices such as an MP3 player and a digital camera, meaning fewer materials are being used overall.
Scientists are also researching ways to make the glass in smartphones more smash-resistant. And while there is room for improvement where recycling is concerned, consumer electronics have the fastest growing recycling rate of any product category in the United States, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency.
This story was updated on Sept. 12, 2018.
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