Greening the Apple: How sustainable is the new iPhone 7?
It features a longer battery life, is more energy-efficient, and a waterproof design will prevent damaged products going straight to landfill. But the ditching of the headphone jack could itself open up an e-waste black hole. So just how sustainable is Apple's new iPhone 7?
The US tech giant unveiled its next-generation iPhone 7 and 7 Plus smartphones in San Fransisco last night (7 September), with a host of new handset features including faster processors, duel camera features and a pressure-sensitive home button.
Apple says the two new models embody the firm’s on-going progress on sustainability and are designed to reduce the overall environmental footprint.
But it is the two standout features of the new iPhone 7 that could have the biggest environmental impact – the waterproofing and the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack, which could in fact have conflicting consequences.
With water damage often rendering a piece of tech irreparable and effectively redundant, Apple's decision to waterproof its new model will mean that any iPhone 7s that get dropped in water or left out in the rain won’t be thrown away by consumers and end up in landfill.
However, the removal of the universal 3.5mm headphone jack could have the opposite effect, with the waste management industry fearing it could cause an increase in e-waste.
iPhone 7 headphones will now plug directly into the Lightning connector on the bottom of the device, meaning headphone sets with a traditional 3.5mm connection are no longer necessary. A Lightning-to-analogue adapter will be included with the new iPhone, meaning that old headphones can still be used.
But many green groups are now concerned that this change will ultimately lead to customers discarding perfectly-usable headphones in favour or Apple’s new ‘AirPod’ earphones.
A petition that had started long before the iPhone 7’s release garnered more than 300,000 signatories, all calling upon Apple to keep the standard headphone port. “This is right out of the Apple corporate playbook,” stated the online petition’s founder, SumOfUs. “A few years ago, it swapped out the original iPod-dock connector with a new one, making countless cords, cables and chargers obsolete.”
With the iPhone headphone replacement now confirmed, a spokesperson for the resource team at UK environmental think tank Green Alliance agreed that this change could lead to thousands of tonnes of e-waste.
“Standard headphone jacks are good enough for professional musicians and cheap enough for everyone,” said the Green Alliance spokesperson. “Changing them won't make your headphones sound better, but if 80% of the people who purchase iPhone 7s this quarter upgrade their headphones, they’ll create 7,000 tonnes of ewaste – equivalent to the annual ewaste of a country the size of Madagascar.”
James Rubin, chief executive of London-based waste removal firm Enviro Waste echoed Green Alliance’s fears. “This is very concerning for the environment as a simple change to the 3.5 mm headphone jack has the potential to create an incredible volume of waste - the scale of this is immense,” Rubin said.
“If we just look at the iPhone 6: well over 200 million have been sold worldwide. Each iPhone 6 comes with a ear plugs which contain 1.5 meters of wiring. For just this phone model alone, that’s enough wire to wrap around the earth over seven times. That's an awful lot of electronic equipment that will be become obsolete over a short timescale.
“What Apple and other manufacturers need to do is follow the principles of the circular economy. Manufacturers should work together to ensure designs enable cross-device compatibility for accessories and that they are putting the environment over excessive profits. They should also work with organisations that can help consumers re-use, recycle and repair their tech rather than just letting it go to landfill. Retailers, meanwhile, should provide their customers with the opportunity to recycle old goods in a more visible, environmentally friendly way.”
In terms of recycling procedures for old headphones, some external options are available. But an Apple representative told edie that the firm does not currently offer any of its own headphone recycling options or takeback schemes for customers. The recently-launched 'Apple Renew' gadget trade-in scheme does not give any mention of headphones or other accessories.
A spokesperson for the European Recycling Platform (ERP) – a business compliance scheme for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) – welcomed the principle of simplifying products and accessories to reduce potential waste, but remains concerned by the lack of takeback and recycling options available for old headphones.
“Firstly, I think innovation is a good thing,” the ERP spokesperson said. “In terms of the environment, I think moves to make products simpler, smarter, lighter and with less accessories can be positive. The circular economy will need innovation to become a reality and we need to encourage innovation.
“It would be nice to see Apple offer a takeback programme for headphones. By using the launch of exciting new products to promote reuse, recycling and takeback, big companies could really help to educate consumers and push the circular economy.”
Many of the other sustainability credentials of the iPhone 7 are the same as previous versions: it is PVC-free, has a recyclable aluminium enclosure, and uses ultra-compact product and packaging designs to increase material efficiency. At the end-of-life, the handset can also be recycled by 'Liam' - a recycling robotic arm that Apple is using to regain valuable resources from discarded products.
Looking at the overall carbon footprint of the iPhone 7, no specific data has been released, but a recent Apple report of the environmental impact of the iPhone 6 model revealed that around 85% of the estimated 95kg of CO2 emitted during a phone's entire lifecycle - manufacture, use and, ideally, recycling - occurs at the manufacturing stage.
The iPhone 7 does include some new, more sustainable features than previous models. Firstly, Apple appears to have listened to previous customer complaints about battery life, with the iPhone 7 lithium-ion battery now storing more energy which allows it to last an average of two hours longer off a single charge.
Meanwhile, the product now incorporates an ‘A10 Fusion’ processor, which Apple says is more energy-efficient. Two of the cores of the chip are reportedly designed to use around one-fifth of the power than the previous A9 processor, which means it can run more efficiently when handling less-demanding tasks. The camera on the phone has also been modified to be 30% more energy-efficient, Apple claims.
More broadly, Apple has become something of a leader in the sustainable business space in recent years. An increasing use of renewable energy to power its operations recently saw the firm top a list of more than 150 companies - including rival tech companies Microsoft and Google - to receive the first 'A+ grade' from sustainability analysis group InfluenceMap.
In June, edie reported that Apple had quietly formed its own energy subsidiary which could see the company sell excess electricity to end-users across the US.