A lot of us don't think about where our gadgets come from, at least not in the environmental sense. We tend to think about this sort of thing in terms of jobs or how companies treat their workers.￼ Companies like Apple do talk about it a lot, but the reality of the situation is that, for most people, the environmental impact of making our favorite devices doesn't enter into the equation.
For most people, their smartphone is probably the most import gadget that they own, and the last decade-plus of purchasing certainly confirms that. And given that our smartphones are, generally, relatively small compared to other devices like laptops and desktops, you might think that the environmental impact is similarly tiny.
While it's true that a single iPhone requires fewer resources than, say, a single MacBook, anywhere between eight and ten times the number of iPhones are sold in a given year than any kind of Mac, so collectively, it adds up. It's important to know what it takes to make a phone, so we can correctly judge the environmental impact our purchasing decisions have.
We'll examine at that impact by looking at the life cycle of Apple's most recent high-end iPhone, the iPhone 11 Pro, as well as Google's 2018 flagship, the Pixel 3.
A problem of data
It should be said up front that there's a certain lack of data about what exactly goes into your phone. While Apple, in the past, has provided detailed breakdowns of the exact materials that went into each phone, the company no longer seems to be doing that. It'll tell us how much greenhouse gas the production process creates, or how efficient the charger is, but when it comes to materials, we're in the dark.
The amount of data and solid numbers provided by either company is, frankly, disappointing.
Meanwhile, Google provides little to no data on device recycling. Additionally, the company has yet to produce a report on the environmental impact of its latest flagship device, the Pixel 4. Hence, the use of the Pixel 3 in its place.
It's frustrating, to say the least, that these companies, whose products are some of the most popular in the world, elect not to release more detailed breakdowns of environmental impact and material usage. It's particularly irksome when said companies used to provide these breakdowns and have simply elected not to continue. After all, it's not like they don't know.
We can only hope that Apple, Google, and other companies decide to be more detailed in the future.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Greenhouse gases are a massive source of pollution and a contributor to climate change. The lifecycle of each iPhone or Pixel produces some amount of carbon emissions. The Google Pixel 3, for instance, leads to around 65kg of CO2 emissions for the 128GB model, while the iPhone 11 Pro produces around 80-110kg of CO2 emissions between the 64GB, 256GB, and 512GB models.
To put these devices in a little perspective, the lifecycle of Apple's 16-inch MacBook Pro creates an estimated 384kg of CO2 emissions.
Most of the greenhouse gas production comes during the production cycle of both phones comes during the actual building process, with a notable amount coming from actual consumer use.
Here's how the percentages break down:
|iPhone 11 Pro||Google Pixel 3|
|Total emissions||80kg (64GB model)||65kg (128GB model)|
The environmental impact of this kind of carbon production can be massive compared to computers like the MacBook. Apple sold an estimated 18 million Macs in 2019, with a footprint between 174kg to 2765kg of greenhouse gases each. Assuming the vast majority are from the MacBook lineup (a safe assumption), then we're talking about C02 production somewhere in the ballpark of 3.1 to 7.1 million kilograms.
By contrast, the iPhones Apple sold in 2019 produced carbon emissions of roughly between 72kg and 86kg per device. But Apple sold an estimated 185 million iPhones in 2019, which leaves us with somewhere between 13.3 to 15.9 million kilograms of carbon emissions.
Phones produce fewer carbon emissions than larger products, but there are millions more of them.
It's no wonder, then, that electronics companies like Apple and Google continually make refinements in their processes in an attempt to drive down produced emissions, though they're not always successful. For example, the estimated amount of CO2 produced by the iPhone 11 Pro is up very slightly from what was produced by its predecessor, the iPhone XS.
Apple constantly puts a spotlight on its use of recycled materials, both for its products and for its packaging. The company has been increasing its use of recycled materials, including tin, plastics, and even some rare earth elements.
Apple uses tin to solder components together on both the main logic board and the power adapter, 100% of which is now recycled tin. Additionally, Apple also used 100% recycled rare earth elements to create a new magnet for the Taptic Engine in the phone, which accounts for 24% of the rare earth element used in the phone overall.
As for plastics, Apple still uses fossil-fuel-based plastics in its devices, though it has increased its use of recycled plastics and renewable alternatives by 35% in the iPhone 11 Pro. The company is also looking to increase that percentage over time.
Google, meanwhile, offers a more detailed breakdown of exactly what materials are in the Pixel 3, and what percentage of the device those materials make up:
What Google doesn't do, however, is tell us just how many of the components in the Pixel 3 are made from recycled material.
While it did so in the past, Apple appears to no longer be providing similar material breakdowns for its phones produced in 2019 and 2020. We know that the iPhone 11 Pro likely uses similar amounts of material as the Pixel 3, though with less aluminum and more steel.
Here's what we do know about the materials that Apple uses in its devices, in a general sense. Copper and small amounts of gold are both used in the making of printed circuit boards. Cobalt is an important component in batteries. Apple uses aluminum in everything from iPhones to the Mac Pro, though on the iPhone 11 Pro, the aluminum is predominantly replaced with steel. There's also a lot of glass and plastics, as well as some tungsten in important areas of many devices.
Both Apple and Google make heavy use of recycled and/or recyclable materials in the packaging of devices. The wood fiber in Apple's packaging is 95% based on wood fiber, 64% of which is recycled, and less than 5% of the packaging is made from plastic, just as it is for Google. Google makes use of mostly paper packaging, and the structural layer to each box is made from 100% recycled material.
Apple, for its part, does its best to ethically source the tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold, and cobalt used in its phones. While it already uses recycled tin in the solder of the phone, the company has announced efforts to move towards product designs that don't require newly-mined materials in an effort to reduce the amount of mining overall.
Both Apple and Google work with their suppliers to reduce environmental impact. Google requires its suppliers to get and maintain any required environmental permits, as does Apple.
Both companies are also working with their suppliers to transition to use green energy as much as possible, with Apple having a stated goal of moving to 100% clean energy-based production for its devices.
Both companies hold material suppliers to high environmental standards.
Apple and Google both make sure that suppliers aren't using harmful and restricted chemicals, like mercury, when building devices, too. Both the iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 3 are free of arsenic, mercury, brominated flame-retardant material, and PVC, and Apple also notes that the iPhone 11 Pro is free of beryllium.
Apple also takes steps to make sure that its suppliers use safe cleaners and degreasers in its facilities, both for the environment and worker safety. Additionally, Apple makes sure that suppliers aren't generating waste that will be sent to landfills.
There are multiple facets to the energy usage of any given device. First there's the energy it takes to make it. Then there's the energy it uses when it's in a customer's hands. How much you use your phone determines how much battery power it expends, which, in turn, determines how much power it takes to charge it when you plug it in or lay it down on its wireless charging pad.
Apple and Google have each made strides towards using less energy to make their phones, but also to ensure that they use less power once in the hands of customers. For instance, iPhone 11 Pro uses 40% less power when charging than current Department of Energy requirements for battery chargers.
Apple and Google have done a lot of work on charging efficiency.
Both companies have noted that their phone chargers use a minimal amount of power when plugged into the wall (0.02W in both cases). Each has also broken down the efficiency of their power adapters when tested at various levels of their output current
|iPhone 11 Pro (Charger efficiency)||87.3%||87.7%||87.9%|
|Google Pixel 3 (Charger efficiency)||N/A||83.5% at 5V
86% at 9V
|82.5% at 5V
85.9% at 9V
There's also the matter of software. Both iOS and Android are continually refined to help improved energy expenditure, with iOS 13 being engineered in part to aid with power consumption. If batteries are more efficient, you don't need to charge them as often, which saves on overall power consumption, and reduces environmental impact. And increased efficiency also leads to longer-lasting devices, letting you hang onto yours longer without needing to replace it or its parts.
E-waste is a growing concern across the world, and it will only become more so as more and more devices enter our lives and we switch out the old for the new. To that end, it's important for large electronics manufacturers to put effort into finding ways to recycle materials and devices to reduce the impact of e-waste on the environment.
Google has, unfortunately, provided little data on device recycling, noting only that it does so when a device is turned in to be recycled.
Apple, however, focuses a lot on its environmental efforts on the device recycling process. Apple uses a lot of recycled materials and focuses on recovering them for use in new products. As previously mentions, 100% of the tin used to solder the motherboard of the iPhone 11 Pro, as well as 100% of the rare earth elements in the Taptic Engine, are recycled. The company also endeavors to use recycled plastics where it can.
Apple puts a major emphasis on recycling, creating a line of robots that lessen the environmental impact of iPhone disassembly.
Apple is constantly working with its suppliers to find scrap resources, rather than relying on mining new materials. This allows the company to reduce both its environmental impact and it's social impact. Some materials, like the cobalt found in device batteries, are harder than others, like aluminum.
At the heart of Apple's device recycling operation is Daisy. Many manufacturers use whole unit shredding to more easily break down devices. In contrast, Daisy is an Apple-designed line of robots that disassembles an iPhone down to its component parts to allow them to be used or repurposed. Daisy recovers everything from the metal frames around the iPhone to the batteries inside. This allows, for instance, cobalt from the batteries of recycled iPhones to be successfully recycled and used in new Apple products later down the line.
Another essential part of the recycling process, for both Apple and Google, are trade-in programs. Apple and Google each have their own programs, though they work differently.
For Google's program, you can buy a Pixel phone, then send in your old device using the provided trade-in kit. You can trade in your old Pixel or a smartphone from another manufacturer, such as Apple, and get credit back for its value (up to $625) on the card you used to buy your new Pixel.
Apple Trade In is more comprehensive, and covers a broader range of devices. You can trade in not only your old iPhone or other smartphone, but iPads, Macs, and Apple Watches. Apple will assess the device you send in, then send you an Apple gift card for the value of the device. Optionally, if you trade in your old device towards the purchase of a new iPhone, Apple will credit your account with the value of your old device.
Knowing is half the battle
While it's frustrating that they provide a limited set of information, it's good that Apple and Google provide this kind of data about their products at all. Most companies, including most electronics manufacturers, don't break down environmental impact on a device-by-device basis.
This data is important, because it lets us be smarter consumers, and helps us to really understand the impact that our buying habits can have. But the data can only tell you what's going on — it can't take action for you.
You have to decide how this data will impact your decisions, or if it even will at all. Maybe you'll hold onto that device in your pocket a little longer than you normally would. Or perhaps you'll take more care when swapping it out for the latest new and shiny tech. Or you could make your next device purchase one from a refurbished store.
It's important to know where our devices come from and how they're made. It's also good to understand when companies are making efforts to lessen their environmental footprint, and how to hold them accountable when they need to improve. It makes it easier for all of us to be more mindful of how we impact the planet, and maybe even leave this world a little better than when we found it.
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