Apple unveiled its latest iPhones at a keynote event on Tuesday that was, as usual, filled with messaging about the environment. Rest easy if you want to upgrade: Apple’s official trade-in program is “great for you, great for the planet.”
That message was scrawled in gigantic letters above Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of retail and people, who added, “because we reuse and recycle, it’s great for the planet.” But the production of new iPhones is inherently wasteful and destructive, warn advocates who have long spoken out against unsustainable practices in the tech industry. Consumers who buy new phones should know that there’s no green way to do it.
“I think it’s great that they’re continuing to innovate, but you have to wonder whether it’s in the planet’s best interest, or yours as a consumer, to buy into the flow of new models,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, which advocates for right-to-repair legislation across the United States.
Repairability goes hand in hand with longevity. The various components of a smartphone are difficult to reclaim, and so new materials are invariably extracted from the planet for new product rollouts. Apple pledged to develop a closed-loop supply chain in 2017, but progress is slow. Earlier this year, the company announced it had developed a robot named Daisy that could disassemble 200 iPhones an hour and reclaim cobalt for use in new batteries, though that’s one piece of a very complicated puzzle — and also requires those iPhones to be returned to Apple in the first place.
“The most environmentally friendly phone is the one that’s already in your pocket.”
Meanwhile, the company tries to thread the needle between touting its environmental commitments and selling fresh hardware every year. Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, played up the durability of the new iPhones, saying that tougher glass and superior manufacturing will radically prolong their life expectancies. Apple CEO Tim Cook called them “the most powerful and most advanced iPhones we have ever built.”
Yet Apple has never indicated that it wants its customers to keep their phones for longer. The company has spent billions of dollars on advertising, and in 2015, it introduced the iPhone Upgrade Program, which encourages consumers to switch to a new model every year.
“Apple has really pioneered the fetishizing of new stuff as a status symbol,” says Nathan Proctor, who leads the right-to-repair campaign at the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups. “In order to maintain our environment, we need to grapple with that idea — that the newest thing has the most status and therefore we all need to get it. That comes at a huge ecological cost.”
To be fair, Apple is far from the only tech giant adding to the problem, although it may be the most influential, and it has made meaningful strides in reducing e-waste. As mentioned, there’s the Daisy robot, and Apple’s global recycling program lets people return their old devices to be parted and reused.
But there remains some smoke and mirrors. One of the materials that Apple frequently discusses in reference to its environmental commitments is aluminum. The company said on Tuesday that new iPads and select Apple Watches will be made from 100% recycled aluminum, joining its other sustainable devices like the MacBook Air and Mac Mini.
But most of the aluminum in circulation is already recycled, making Apple’s claims about its environmental impact “overstated,” Gordon-Byrne says. And while Apple certifies that its aluminum is indeed reused, all of it “would’ve been recycled anyway, so there’s no net benefit to the planet from this program,” adds Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, a company that provides repair manuals and sells kits to help individuals fix their electronics.
What would be meaningful is if Apple closed the loop on, say, lithium — one of several precious materials that are mined at great human and environmental cost. Still, “Apple can’t do it by itself,” says Josh Lepawsky, an associate professor of geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies e-waste. “Broader change has to come from things like regulating or mandating the use of recycled materials across an entire sector like electronics.”
For the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, Apple highlighted onstage a laundry list of enhancements concerning things like arsenic and mercury in display glass (there will be none) and recyclability (the phones will be “highly recyclable,” according to Schiller — though perhaps only by Apple’s proprietary equipment).
“There’s a big difference between using recyclable materials, which are easily recovered, and using recycled materials,” Lepawsky explains.
“A manufacturer trying to reduce toxic ingredients in new products is a helpful thing,” Proctor says. “At the same time, fewer new products would be generating less of this stuff.”
A spokesperson for Apple declined to comment on the record about the reusability of its products. Asked by OneZero, the company did not say whether older iPhones will be rendered obsolete by the introduction of iOS 13 in September. Beyond hardware, software updates can encourage consumers to buy new devices as their phones turn sluggish or fail to run the latest apps. Previous reporting states that iOS 13 will work with iPhones as old as the 6S model, which launched four years ago, while iOS 12 supports iPhones as old as the 5S, introduced to the market in 2013.
There are alternatives to buying a new iPhone, of course. The Dutch company Fairphone works to design sustainable and conflict-free smartphones. And there’s always good ol’ repair.
After all, Wiens says, “the most environmentally friendly phone is the one that’s already in your pocket.”