The Carbon Credentials of Smartphones
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%.
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.
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.
Read more at ENN affiliate: The Ecologist
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