iPhone optimize

Destroying the planet one iPhone at a time

Your shiny new iPhone is killing the planet... and that new laptop too... and your server... along with every other piece of electronics you own. Here's a look at the environmental impact of how electronics are made and what to do about it.

Your shiny new iPhone is killing the planet... and that new laptop too... and your server... along with every other piece of electronics you own. Here's a look at the environmental impact of how electronics are made and what to do about it.

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Often when people talk about greening IT, they mostly focus on the power consumption aspects of technology. There's another entire part of the equation that deals with the components that are used to assemble the servers, workstations, and other devices -- including the iPhone -- that we use every day. Just how much of an impact on the planet do the devices have when they're being assembled and what kind of an impact do they have when they're past their prime?

Garbage in, garbage out

Let's take one simple device as an example of the problem -- the iPhone. Apple sold one million iPhones within 3 days of releasing the iPhone 3g. Steve Jobs has hopes to sell 10 million iPhones within the first year. Only a very small percentage of people will be buying an iPhone 3g as their first device. That means that potentially 10 million older devices are headed for the landfill as a result of the iPhone's introduction.

What's inside of those 10 million devices? All sorts of wonderful minerals and chemicals like PCB, lead, mercury, nickel, cadmium, phthalates, and cholorine. That's just the devices that are being retired. It doesn't include what's in the iPhone itself.

According to GreenPeace, the first version of the iPhone was full of hazardous chemicals. Apple promised to make the iPhone 3g more environmentally friendly, but as you can see when we disassembled the iPhone 3g, there's not much between it and when we cracked open the original iPhone. Apple hasn't reported the green impact of the iPhone 3g components, but GreenPeace was less than impressed.

On a slight digression, it's not like Apple's doing nothing about the environment and its products. For example, the new iPhone ships with a biodegradable potato-starch-based shipping material rather than planet-destroying plastics.

Plenty of blame to go around

Apple in general and the iPhone in particular aren't the only troublemakers when it comes to making earth-unfriendly products. Just about every piece of electronics you own, especially those running in your IT infrastructure, are guilty.

Some vendors are worse than others in being environmentally irresponsible manufacturers. Going back to Greenpeace once again, you can find a Guide to Greener Electonics where each major manufacturer is rated on their green footprint. Vendors are rated on a scale of 1 - 10, with 10 being green (good) and 1 being red (evil).

No vendor rates a perfect 10. (I doubt it's even possible.) However, you can see that some of the vendors commonly found in an IT shop do better than others:

  • Dell - (4.5) Good on toxic chemicals and e-waste, but low score on energy issues.
  • Toshiba - (4.3)  Scores well on toxic chemicals but badly on e-waste and energy.
  • Acer - (4.3) Good commitment to phase out toxic chemicals, but poor overall on e-waste and energy.
  • HP - (4.3) Good on amounts recycled and committed to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Apple - (4.1) Increasing number of products free of the worst toxic chemicals. Low scores on energy except for good energy efficiency in products.
  • Lenovo - (3.9) Some points for toxic chemical commitment and good on product energy efficiency
  • Microsoft - (2.15) Some commitments on toxic chemical phaseout but poor on e-waste and energy issues.

You don't normally think of Microsoft as having an environmental impact, but in this case the report is focusing on things like mice, keyboards, and mostly the xBox 360. Other major vendors like Cisco aren't included, but you can assume they'd score the same as Dell and HP.

What it shows

As you can see, all the major vendors, with the exception of Lenovo and Microsoft, are pretty tightly packed into the middle of the offender's list. It's a good list to keep an eye on to see if any vendor becomes more egregious than another, but in general rest assured that no matter what vendor you choose, from a green perspective, you're dooming the planet.

In that case, one of the things to do is to focus on disposal at the other end. Many jurisdictions ban the dumping of electronics into landfills.  If all electronics aren't banned in general, there are usually restrictions on things like CRT monitors and computers, which are more prone to leacking bad stuff.

Many vendors such as Dell and HP will take old equipment as part of a recycling program. You can also check online to find out where to recycle used equipment.

The bottom line for IT leaders

There's plenty of toxic materials buried inside the phones, workstations, servers, and other electronics that we use every day. Although it may be tempting to just dump them when you're done with it, be careful. Many jurisdictions mandate the recycling of computer equipment and other electronics. Even if it's not the law where you are, it's a good idea from the standpoint of global stewardship.

Although no computer manufacturer is perfect, many vendors are improving the way they assemble computers and the components they use in such a way as to minimize their impact on the environment. If you're concerned with how green your IT is, check to see how the vendor rates in designing equipment and packaging.

Voting with the green of your dollars can have an impact on the green of the environment.

43 comments
yooper
yooper

I personally worked in the electronic manufacturing field for many years, and it's very thankless or hazardous. I regret every minute I spent working in the field, granted, I was on the very low end, dealing directly with the very wastes you mention in the various posts. There's very nasty stuff that goes into building any electronic device. The environmental field is a crock! They do very little to protect the environment or make things "greener" but just ledgistrate meaningless law that do nothing!

a.southern
a.southern

Personally, I'd take "greenpeace" with a pinch of salt, they'll always find something to complain about until we're all childless vegans, then they'll complain at a lack of healthcare or pension or some rubbish like that. Key to life is be efficient. Let machines be all the machine they can be. Don't buy a state of the art computer if you're only going to be writing your CV on it. I would question that 10 million phones into landfill. iPhone users are probably the tarts who jump on the first new handset available, i.e. they already have a half decent one, and will probaqbly pass it on or sell it on. I will pay good money to see someone who goes from a Nokia 5210 to a iPhone without any in-between handsets. -Andy.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Okay, I initially formed an opinion and Googled for others, but now I find there are a lot of areas that need further study here. For example, the Penn & Teller episode of Bull***t, a show where they take a very opposed opion to a certain technology, concept or practice and tear holes in it. This show you have to take in stride as it is done to be humorous and have their desired effect by finding sources that suit their agenda; it is 50% bull and 50% s**t. The did an episode on recycling and to what great lengths people will go. As a joke, they pretended to start a new recycling system for residents in a small neighbourhood. They started adding different colour bins at each home and asked if people would be willing to separate their garbage into more choices. Some people were willing to TRY up to TWELVE different coloured bins for different types of waste. Anyway, based on the size of all of America's landfills, they show that ALL of Americas waste for 1000 years would fit into an area 32square miles (A mere SPEC on Amercia's landscape). They showed how they are built and how methane is actually vented into a turbine, it is then used to power the landfill's power needs and they also dump power back into the grid. WOW, this looks like some good stuff! And when I looked for the effects of heavy metals in landfills, I found that one test in Japan, proved to "promote the insolubilization of zinc but the solubilization of iron." http://sciencelinks.jp/j-east/article/200217/000020021702A0586213.php Okay, so it works for some but not all, that makes it a tricky one, better keep digging (pun unintentional). LOL, well this one's a tongue twister! [i]The landfill soils contained higher concentrations of metals (iron, manganese, copper, cadmium, lead and zinc) than did the background soil. Microbial parameters were negatively correlated with the metals, with inhibition increasing with the bioavailability of the metals. It is suggested that the metals affected microbial biomass and activities by behaving synergistically or additively with each other. Although the landfill soils had higher microbial biomass and activities than the background soil, due to higher organic matter content, the ratios of microbial parameters/organic carbon indicated that inhibition of microbial growth and activities had occurred due to metal stress."[/i] http://www.springerlink.com/content/k513746168682424/ Okay, so they tested for effects of metals comparatively between landfill and background soil. It proved that soil with high metal content was actually creating microbial growth...BUT....that growth was due to the ORGANIC matter and the metals actually inhibited even greater microbial growth. So, they DO harm the landfill's ability to "digest its dinner". I dunno, I don't have time to think now, I have to take the Bluebox out. ;)

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

When I first read your title I thought, "Oh, no! John's at it again, SHEESH! :p ([i]sorry[/i]) with the iPhone, here goes another circular argument where I will get sucked into wasting time on an irrelevant tangent. Man, this guy writes titles that at Enquirer worthy!" Then I took time to read your article, interesting. "Okay, who really gives a crap as long as we are advancing mankind and able to save lives and better our world?" That's an excuse for buying my toys too, of course. Oh, and the military technology that is so progressed that it, if it were to fall into the wrong hands, can end our existence. SO maybe technology is both good and bad, but where's the balance with the environment? Should we stop it? Perhaps have it regulated and controlled by law, or maybe its all just a lot of crap. I think that as long as manufacturing processes are showing awareness in the finished product, if the end user is aware and also has an option and the desire to properly dispose of tech gadgets, then there is no real issue of concern. We have a few wars going on too right now, even though not a real ratings grabber lately. Lets just move forward, with everything as always cars, fuels, forestry responsibility, fish and wildlife preservation etc. As long as we share a common focus, perhaps we won't meet stringent targets or maybe the outcome is simply unpredictable, we will be moving in a positive direction. I find those that are opposed to the whole save the planet idea are those who see their lives changing. It really doesn't have to be that difficult; let's all just be aware and do what we can, use the services supplied to properly dispose of or recycle where it is cost effective and laugh, sing and play. There are many people that are devoting their lives into real, effective means of improving our energy sources, reducing wasted resources, etc.; we can only do what is reasonable to do. I was just thinking, if the juicy green Apple, with a big bite out of it, is the sign of a MAC, would that not make the iPhone a rock hard and sour crab apple that makes you do the Mr.Yuk face? [i](It's your fault, you started it)[/i]

SaintGeorge
SaintGeorge

I think there is no way out of this. The most we could do is to postpone the inevitable and hope ET comes to save us before it happens. Or maybe the Second Comming. But anyway, what did you write this article on? Ceramic tablets? Even that would have hurt the environment; after all, natural evolution didn't plan for humans doing that. Or maybe it did? Anything we do to bend nature to our needs is harmful to the environment. Naturalists who don't want DDT on their crops are blind to the fact that agriculture itself is destroying nature's balance. To really show respect for nature and environment, we would have to let cataclisms and microorganisms decimate us back to manageable numbers, go back to gather wild berries, and take our proper place in the chainfood, somewhere between woodworms and feral cats. I myself will probably keep on trying to pay the rent every month and wait for the Second Coming.

Kyser Soze
Kyser Soze

Agenda driven extremists. Nothing is going to make them happy unless everyone, except themselves, dies. Read Patrick Moore's Greenspirit website for more insight into Greenpeace, he was one of the founders. There is no problem so complex that it cannot be resolved by human ingenuity. And to think that people can destroy the planet is aggrogent stupidity. We can only kill ourselves, life will continue without us.

jobrien
jobrien

Recycling of discarded consumer electronics might be a good idea from the viewpoint of natural resource conservation. However, disposing of these products in landfills will not harm the environment. There are good scientific reasons why heavy metals - once disposed - do not leach out of the waste. Furthermore, the leachate is collected and treated.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

Many newer devices are not using lead. Th EU has banned lead in the use of computers and consumer electronics (from my understanding). For tha last couple of years, lead has been pulled from solder and other areas and been replaced by a nickel compound. Your estimates woul dbe hard to prove, as many people actually recycle consumer electronics and computers/monitors. Furthermore, many places are putting up SMART stations instead of just landfills. In these SMART stations, they go through everything to limit what goes to the landfills, and maximizes recycling. So even if people are just throwing out devices, depending on where they live, the devices may still be recycled.

christianhoopes
christianhoopes

So things that came from the earth are returning to the earth? What's more 'green' than that? I'm going to buy a few more iPhones just so I can throw them away.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

As I pointed out in Decision Central, we're all basically in the same boat when it comes to the environmental issues surrounding what goes into the electronics we buy: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/decisioncentral/?p=124 all vendors are pretty much equally bad. Even Apple which has tried harder to be green has fallen short. Do environmental issues affect your decisions regarding equipment purchases? If so, do you focus primarily on power consumption or also into such things as vendor reputation?

wmlundine
wmlundine

I can remember when things were a lot worse.

Namelesscomment
Namelesscomment

the reason they keep complaining is because the world isn't perfect! and pension or a lack of health care may not matter to you, but there's billions of people in the world and I'm pretty sure some of them would.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Of the lengths to which archaeologists go nowadays -- finding, isolating, stratigraphics, laser/vapor spectoscopic analysis, neutron activation, and so forth -- and we could already put it all in one neat place for them, arranged in layers of cellphones and sorry asses!

Namelesscomment
Namelesscomment

urrrr, yeah - notice how you said "anything we do to bend nature to our needs" well of course that would hurt the environment, we're bending nature to OUR needs, and how do you suggest the author would have gotten his message across without the internet? should he send out flyers or something?

Namelesscomment
Namelesscomment

you don't think people can destroy the planet? I think they could- they could drill out all the metals, diamonds etc in the Earth, kill off animal species, cut down trees, melt Antarctica, pollute rivers and so much more. If you don't call that destroying the Earth then I don't know what you'd call it

aijayes
aijayes

Yes, there are many agenda-driven extremists yearning for unthinking blind support and dollars, Greenpeace and HSUS are but two of them. Beware. But I'll still recycle my computer parts.

STSanford
STSanford

I find this whole Green tact to be nothing more that socialism. I am ALL FOR Conservation. I have no problem with that and recycling, but I've noticed the following... Hear me out: 1. We're encouraged to live green, our freedoms are slowly and insidiously being eroded. Can't drive these evil polluting autos... Ever see a public transport bus? I wonder how much more they pollute than my little 6- cylinder car. 2. We should buy carbon credits. Who speaks very loudly about this: Al Gore. (You may remember him, he thinks he invented the internet) Who benefits by being an owner / shareholder / board of trustees member of one of the biggest "Carbon Offset" companies. Al Gore. 3. We have to change our incandescent lightbulbs when, 2010 /2011... Why? I haven't a clue, what does the incandescent lightbulb do that's bad... Give off heat? I know of someone who's Compact Fluorescent light broke and had to get HAZMAT in to clean it up. That's ridiculous. If you follow the money, you'll see what's really going on, and I don't believe it has ANYTHING to do with protecting the planet.

cp7212
cp7212

"There are good scientific reasons why heavy metals - once disposed - do not leach out of the waste." I always enjoy reading articles and such that state, "this is safe", but there is never any proof to back it up. Also, I don't consider linking to a blog as proof. I am not calling you a liar or the such, I am just asking for proof. Thanks.

Namelesscomment
Namelesscomment

I wouldn't call it 'returning to the Earth', plus it would still use up resources to get the metals (fuel for machines etc). But if you insist on throwing away some brand new iPhones that you'd have bought with your own money then that's your choice.

jobrien
jobrien

Go ahead and do that if you want to waste your money as well as natural resources. My point is that throwing your I-phone away won't harm the environment.

philcarnold
philcarnold

Can we look at the same impact of clothing, our food supply, of even something as innocent as children's toys? Don't get me wrong. I'n for helping planet earth, but there are far worse problems to give thought to than my laptop.

Nori Sarel
Nori Sarel

I think you are blaming the wrong people... Sure manufacturers could do more to make electronics less toxic but the real problem is you and me and everyone else. For instance, plastic is not bad, in fact it is one of the best inventions ever, it saves lives left and right and makes life significantly easier. The downside is that if it isn't properly disposed of it is bad for the environment. But who is at fault there? Is it the people who make the plastic of the people who throw it away? I'm thinking the latter. Same with electronic components... How can you expect a computer or electronics manufacturer to make stuff without using toxic materials? I doubt that they can or will be able to ever, or at least for some time. The reason is, as you've pointed out, so many things are toxic. Is the solution to get rid of toxic parts? No its not, it is to promote responsibility in people like you and me to recycle, and to support and push for more recycling initiatives. Don't be so quick to blame computer companies for the consumerism of people and their lack of social responsibility.

wmlundine
wmlundine

...I built my Vista machine in an old wooden box. I know it is not perfect but some folks get it.

santeewelding
santeewelding

This planetary destruction -- you talking on the scale of red-giant radius and envelopment? These toxic materials -- they exogenous? If they were here already, are you meaning redistribution or midden science? Our own sorry asses -- rocket the dead into space, pulling the exhaust with them? That's what I'm thinking when I read your piece. What are you thinking?

yooper
yooper

I agree, I remember as a child driving by lakes and seeing huge pipes spewing industrial waste. I suppose I'm jaded having worked in the field and see what a sham it is for the most part. Granted, there's not any Three mile island story around that much now a days.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Think big, bigger than the mountain in Nevada. Choose a hundred square miles in the middle of somewhere for the (inter)national ziggurat. Put half the population to work building and administrating the thing while the other contributes. Ought to be able to see it from space.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Get the addresses of archaeologists so that we can mail them our used electronics to study with. :D

Namelesscomment
Namelesscomment

Firstly, you said they 'encouraged' you- that doesn't mean your 'freedom is slowly and insidiously being eroded' it means someone is sharing their opinion and they would like you to accept and maybe act on it. Secondly, If you knew much about saving petrol, you'd find that actually a bus IS more envromentally friendly, because unlike one or two people traveling in your car, theres 5 or 6 (at least) travelling in a bus. Notice the 1 bus transporting many people or the 1 car trasporting you.

Richard-HK
Richard-HK

I'm not an waste disposal expert, but from what I have read I understand it MAY be possible to prevent, or at least long term delay, heavy metal leaching into surrounding soil and ground water IF the landfill site is properly lined (compacted dense clay, heavy gauge industrial plastic liners, masonry crypts, etc.). However, I believe that is hardly standard practice and is still fairly uncommon. Instead, the waste gets shipped to low income or less developed areas of the US, Canada, Europe, etc. or to poorer countries without strong environmental standards and dumped in unsecure landfills. If the contracted waste disposal company is truly unethical or is faced with high disposal cost and clients who don't want to pay high fees, it just gets dumped in the open in ditches, ravines, streams, etc. The industrial areas of China, near where I used to live, are open cess pools of hazardous waste from disposal of not only electronic garbage from China, but from other countries from which cities and businesses ship into China or can find someone to smuggle the waste into China for a low disposal price. There have been past reports in the press in the area that big electronics producers, including business units of western companies that position themselves as being "green", insulate themselves from negative publicity of such unsafe hazardous waste disposal by contracting out the disposal. The contracts require the disposal company to conform to environmental standards, but there is often little follow-up to ensure that happens, even at the low level of environmental enforcement in China. There is a reason why cities and industrial zones in China overwhelming dominate the list of most polluted areas in the world. And, it is not all waste generated in China.

Namelesscomment
Namelesscomment

but wouldn't it seem a little strange if a website called 'TechRepublic' was talking about food?

Ssp
Ssp

Am not a fan of apple iphone but is the author raising a flag against its sale ? But in any case, does he want us to carry a couple of beans and snakegourd in our pockets instead of a phone ? That would be really eco friendly.

william.bondy
william.bondy

Why not just send them to the same place you send your computers??? I might be a little lucky in that we send all our electronic to a Recycle plant here in Alberta Canada, I was guessing that most of the world would be heading in this directions as there is a TON of money to be made here???

Lizzie_B
Lizzie_B

Now Jest A Darned Minnut! I live in the Great State of Idaho! Are you insinuating that Our Noble Capital is a Trash City? How Dare You!??!!!?! Oh. Wait a minute. I live in *North* Idaho. Never mind, Boise's a great choice... Oh, by the way - :-) ;-) and such. In case someone wasn't sure...

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

(the famous one not the masonic one) as a "center pole" and work around it, getting bigger and bigger with each layer of "history". DC would be a good spot. Or Boise, maybe.

Lizzie_B
Lizzie_B

May I humbly suggest that the ziggurat be sited in the District of Columbia? I believe it to be an ideal location, given that it's the center of waste in the United States. Wasted money, wasted time, wasted effort and wasted lives. Might as well add the physical to the spiritual - keep the balance, as it were... -Cynical Lizzie [Edit: Pain-induced finger-fumbling...]

Namelesscomment
Namelesscomment

I'm pretty sure they're suggesting RECYCLING- we're not going to go all the way from modern iPhones to beans and snake gourd if it's not necessary.

wmlundine
wmlundine

...how about drums....they're digital; no? But seriously; we should and I suppose we will be increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of industry.