Want to save the Earth? Then don’t buy that shiny new iPhone

Want to save the Earth? Then don’t buy that shiny new iPhone

John Naughton, writing in the Guardian:

After all, two years ago I got an iPhone 11, which has been more than adequate for my purposes. That replaced the iPhone 6 I bought in 2014 and that replaced the iPhone 4 I got in 2010. And all of those phones are still working fine. The oldest one serves as a family backup in case someone loses or breaks a phone, the iPhone 6 has become a hardworking video camera and my present phone may well see me out.

That’s three phones in 11.5 years, so my “upgrade cycle” is roughly one iPhone every four years. From the viewpoint of the smartphone industry, which until now has worked on a cycle of two-yearly upgrades, I’m a dead loss. Which is strange, given that these phones don’t wear out, a fact that may be getting through to users. At any rate, they seem to be holding on to their phones for longer. And yet the manufacturers are still, like Apple, annually releasing new models that are generally just an incremental improvement on what went before rather than a great leap forward. Why?

I’ve only ever bought one phone on a contract over the last 20 years, and switched to a SIM-only plan as soon as that expired. Mobile networks are just as keen to get you to upgrade as the phone makers, as it keeps you tied to their network and paying the price they set.

Planned obsolescence may be good for phone companies but it’s bad for users’ wallets and even worse for the planet, because it encourages people to treat their phones as disposable. No one really knows how much e-waste (electronic refuse) is generated every year, but one recent estimate put it at 53.6m metric tonnes in 2019. And as far as CO2 emissions are concerned, a 2018 Canadian university study estimated that building a new smartphone – and specifically, mining the rare materials inside them – accounts for 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years. That means, said one report, that “buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade”.

I have to wonder now if all the devices I sold off for recycling are part of those statistics. It’s not as if Apple, Google, Samsung and others lack the financial power to at least ensure that as much as possible is recycled from used devices.

As I write, I have a Fairphone 3+ on the desk beside me. It’s a very capable, nicely designed, dual-sim Android phone. In just seconds, I snap off the back of the case with a fingernail and remove the battery. Other modules of the phone, including the camera, can be removed and replaced without elaborate tools or expertise. And once it’s done you snap the case shut and press the power button. And you can buy it online for £399.

I would definitely consider a Fairphone when it comes time to replace my iPhone SE. (As that is sealed, the most likely cause for its demise will be the internal battery eventually losing its ability to keep charge for a full day.) All the phones I owned prior to the iPhone 4S let me swap out the battery if needed, and I don’t recall them requiring as much protection.

Eventually, the pendulum will swing back, but not without more effort to dislodge it from where it’s currently wedged.