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The Carbon Credentials of Smartphones

David Thomas

This month we see the arrival of the new iPhone. Surely the world's most desired gadget. How should we judge its carbon credentials?

2.5 million tons of electronics were discarded in the US alone in 2010

Little green apples

Launching alongside Apple's flagship 5S iPhone will be the 5C, the first mid-range iPhone, with fewer features and a plastic casing instead of aluminium. The 5S will have a carbon footprint of 70kg, the 5C a footprint of 60kg. Of the 5S's 70kg carbon footprint, 81% will be emitted during production and 12% during phone's ‘career' (which is how I like to think of it).

The new iPhones will be less environmentally friendly than those that came before. To be clear: the total carbon footprint per phone has increased, but mostly that is accounted for by production. In terms of running cost, an 13W energy efficient lightbulb is eight times more wasteful than an iPhone.

Apple's supply chain has a recycling standard of over 70%, which green groups largely approve of despite an ongoing battle to stem human rights abuses committed by factory owners trying to maximise productivity. CEO Tim Cook is said to have sustainability at the heart of his vision for the company. Yet here comes a slightly more wasteful iPhone. Perhaps it's a necessary step in Cook's march towards a sweeter Apple? However you look at it, the carbon output per handset is significant considering how many Apple plan to sell.

The next question is: how to judge an iPhone's carbon footprint according to total emissions over its life? People switch phones with varying frequency in different countries. The obvious solution would be to create an emissions-per-year estimate, but having searched online I have been unable to find one. The closest has been a breakdown of the efficiency of the iPhone's power brick, which hovers between 70-80%.

Here is a list from 2010 showing how often the denizens of the world switched phones:

2010 - Frequency at which nations upgraded their phones

UK - every 22 months
India - every 94 months (frequency increased by 230 months since 2007)*
France - every 31 months (frequency decreased by 3 months since 2007)*
Germany - every 46 months
Italy - every 55 months
Canada - every 33 months
United States - every 22 months (frequency decreased by 3 months since 2007)*
Japan - every 46 months (frequency decreased by 20 months since 2007)*
Korean - every 27 months
Brazil - every 81 months (frequency increased by 30 months since 2007)*
Mexico - every 40 months
South Africa - every 38 months

*Consumption of technology gives an interesting insight into the development of a nation. India for example is developing at great speed. Meanwhile, Japan has suffered.

Glamour vs longevity

80% of the global iPhone market is north American. To offer a truly sustainable communications tool Apple would have to figure out how to make an iPhone that would retain its glamour over a longer period of time.

Two phone companies have potential solutions.

Phonebloks offers a modular smartphone that can be customised and upgraded as its parts fail or are no longer required. The chassis remains the same and as a whole the system would prevent perfectly functional parts being scrapped because of a single faulty part. Phonebloks is still in development.

Fairphone produces smartphones sourced fairly on all fronts, including the troublesome tin and tantalum that Apple is criticised for using. Fairphone refers to its minerals as being ‘conflict free'. And as an attempt at building in longevity, Fairphone has enabled every phone owner to modify their own handset as well as donating to Closing the Loop with every Fairphone sold. Closing the Loop is a phone recycling company.

Computing is increasingly cloud-reliant. The breakthrough the portable technology industry needs is in battery capacity, which has not been developed at nearly the same rate as microprocessing power. A modular handset that last years without being charged, and that renews itself with downloads from the cloud: this could eventually be the low carbon smartphone solution.

Circular Economies

Back to recycling. Alongside the electronics industry there is a growing shadow industry to deal with its refuse. 2.5 million tons of electronics were discarded in the US alone in 2010. This haul represents what Paul Watson, CEO of Green Technology Solutions (GTSO) calls, "An incredible windfall of lithium, gold, neodymium, rare earths and other valuable materials".

How would that incredible windfall look next to the mountain of electronics that will be discarded worldwide in 2013? Reuse and recycling is becoming one of the world's most relevant, urgent industries. A phone is made of metals: finite resources. New technology is valuable because of what it gives you. Old technology is precious because of what it is. The people capitalising now will become tycoons. Watson says of this waste, "Soon, we plan to send it to the bank, instead [of the dump]."

Recycling technology can happen in various ways. One can dismantle the device and reuse the constituent parts. Or, one can simply hand the device onto another user. Tom Tullie is the chairman of ecoATM, which manufactures kiosks that refurbish 75% of all the devices it collects: an example of the first way. "There are going to be millions of people buying the new iPhone... When they do, we want there to be an ecoATM nearby for them to cash in or recycle their old phones."

The 14,000 collection points of the Wireless Alliance harvest about 80,000 phones every month: an example of the second way. Vice-president Andy Bates says iPhones are recycled "99% of the time; it doesn't have a major impact on e-waste. It will be [recycled] at some point, but not until something better comes along."

At Apple's rate of production, that better ‘something' could be the next iPhone, or it could be one of the many other smartphones or ‘phablets' coming on the market. It could even be a smart watch. What will be interesting to observe will be what happens to all the gadgets left behind.

Thank you to Business Green, the New Yorker and Phone Arena for some of the above quotations.

David Thomas is one of the writers at The Eco Experts (@theecoexperts) specialising in emerging technology, energy efficiency and government policy. His writing has been published widely on the web. He's also an advisor for the Low Carbon Hub.

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