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.


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.