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The iPhone, Now in Green(er)

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By Nancy Scola

Inside each of the more than one million 3G iPhones sold so far, you'll find a lithium-ion battery. No big surprise there. But what's different here from early model iPhones is that the batteries are not soldered in place. That's good news. It means that when your iPhone has a dead battery, you can simply get a new battery, rather than sending the whole thing back to corporate HQ, or dumping it in the trash. And speaking of trash, there's more good news on that front: an unsoldered battery makes a phone easier and more economical to dissemble and recycle.

But you wouldn't know all that from Apple's marketing. It took the gadget gurus over at iFixit to buy and quickly break down a 3G phone to get the scoop on the removable battery. In fact, you wouldn't know much at all about the new iPhone's greenness from Apple. I put a call into a company press contact, who walked me through apple.com to find a brief below-the-fold environmental impact statement on the new iPhone. (This is not exactly transparent backstory management.)

But while the new iPhone is far from sustainable, Apple's tucked-away impact statement points to definite improvements from the first generation to the second. Beyond the replaceable battery, the handset, headphones and USB cable are all now PVC-free. The circuit board is produced without bromine. The LCD is made sans mercury. And let's back up a bit -- buying a new iPhone might not even be necessary. The software 2.0 upgrade means that owners of first-gen phones don't even need to buy a 3G to get most of the newest functionality.

Apple has long had a reputation, deserved or otherwise, for lagging behind the rest of the computing industry when it comes to the environment. Two years ago Greenpeace launched a campaign to Green My Apple. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has targeted the company with its Bad Apple campaign. Last April, Steve Jobs responded with a manifesto titled "A Greener Apple." In it, the CEO praised the company while establishing a commitment to quit using toxic chemicals and improve recycling.

Millions of pounds of electronic waste is generated in the U.S. each year, as we've documented here on Worldchanging. Much of the world's e-waste is shunted off to developing countries, creating landscapes that look like the trashed Earth in Pixar's "Wall-E." Producer take-back programs not only help solve what to do with that waste but also encourage producers to design for recyclability. Apple now takes back all cell phones, regardless of manufacturer, and has stated a commitment to recycle all of its North American e-waste in the United States.

This is all stuff Apple should be bragging about. We tech geeks obsessed over the details of the new iPhone 3G. Product images were examined with the loving care generally reserved for sonograms and release date was tracked as carefully as a due date. Battery life, the new app store, its $199 price tag and AT&T's new rate plans were hashed over. But iPhone's greenness rarely came up, if ever.

Do Apple's marketing wizards think that even their notoriously discerning and design-minded customers are unconcerned about the sustainability of the products they buy? Here, we're talking about smart baked-in design that reduces toxic exposure and waste -- much more game-changing than, say, a shiny but inefficient solar cell-phone charger -- but it seems that the latter type of "green products" often get more air time. Corporations are in the great position to educate consumers about paradigm-shifting ways of doing business. Until we're at a point when ethical, sustainable business practices are the standard and don't need to be shouted from the rooftops, it would be great to see a forward-thinking company like Apple push the edge of that envelope.

For more, don't miss Jeremy Faludi's four-part series on green IT in our archives.

Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer, blogger, and editor who focuses on the place where technology meets culture. She's worked in the past on Capitol Hill, in presidential politics, and in progressive radio.

Photo credit: flickr/Fr3d.org, licensed by Creative Commons

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Comments

Regarding Apple's alleged poor environmental record, one criticism levelled by Greenpeace was that not enough Apple computers got recycled. AFAIK, this was based on statistics of computer brands reaching recycling facilities.
However, Greenpeace failed to consider a simple fact: Apple owners tend to get attached to their computers, to the extent that they often keep them long after they have become obsolete. Mac owners tend to have several old computers in the garage/attic. So, the fact that Macintosh computers don't make it to a recycling facility is not necessarily a sign that they are ending up in landfills. Many haven't been disposed of at all.


Posted by: John Rynne on 27 Jul 08

Strange that the iPhone 'Environmental Status Report' only appeared after the launch. Steve Jobs made his high profile promise to phase out toxic brominated flame retardants and PVC plastic by the end of 2008. So hopefully there will be some significant positive changes coming soon from Apple. Recent models like the MacBook Air have reduced toxics content.

On the recycling comment above we criticised Apple on recycling because it didn't offer a free, global recycling scheme unlike competitors such as Dell. Unfortunately it still doesn't offer free recycling for customers who do want to see their old mac safely recycled in some places where they sell their products.

We have been pressuring the major electronics companies to reduce toxic chemicals, recycle globally and reduce their climate impact. Many companies are making progress, including Apple, but indeed we are still looking for one forward-thinking company to push the edge of the green envelope.

Tom
Greenpeace International


Posted by: Tom on 28 Jul 08

One of the cool things about buying these phones is that, since they are tied to AT&T only for actual telephone service, the users get a free surveillance program where all of your voice and text communication is recorded and shared with people not know to you. And the added bonus that you are guaranteed that a reasonable portion of the money you send AT&T will be expended on efforts to persuade the legislative and executive branch to keep you from having any recourse at law should you be harmed by this program.


Posted by: Joe Bell on 28 Jul 08

You got a new shiny iPhone...That's Great !

But what about your old iPhone? Don't recycle your mobile...

and Don't worry, just DONATE at http://www.rubarudirect.com/iphone

There are millions of people waiting for this...

just do it... Let them happy forever :)


Posted by: Donate iPhone on 29 Jul 08

Nice improvements, but they still have very far to go as a company. Climate Counts scored them 11 out of 100 - they've done very little to report on their emissions, nothing to help promote legislation to help reverse or curb climate change, and advised shareholders against creating a sustainability board for the company.


Posted by: Max on 29 Jul 08

also the real shame of it is that Al Gore is on the Board of Apple and seemingly takes a pass on the issue and the above comment is correct, Climate Counts has rated them lower than most though not as low as before. But it makes you wonder why not being green is seen as a benefit at a company so known for innovation, I mean WalMart is greener than Apple!


Posted by: James Boyce on 29 Jul 08

It's sad when you can barely find their environmental impact statement. Indeed, after Climate Counts came out with their scorecard I was bummed and was really counting on Apple to up it a few notches. It's good they're doing something but a company of their hype and wealth should be paving the way. I hope by the time Climate Counts comes out with their next scorecard that Apple will have done substantially more and that this is only the beginning.


Posted by: kj on 29 Jul 08

Regarding John Rynne's comment, I would add that, due to good software design and integration of the operating system with the machine, the life of an Apple computer can be longer than a PC. I had my Apple G4 Cube for almost 7 years, and before it failed it was running a recent version of the operating system (OSX 10.4) at a good speed. I like its looks so much, I have kept it (and yes, it is in my attic at the moment). I am using the Cube's lovely speakers and the original external drives with my new MacBook and will probably use the old monitor in the future as well. Prior to the Cube I had an original style iMac, which was passed on to a friend and is still in use. Over 10 years of computing and almost nothing was discarded. Perhaps there are some lessons about environmentally friendly design here.


Posted by: Laurence Green on 31 Jul 08

I picked up an aged (18 years old!) Mac and Apple laser printer out of the skip at school earlier this year. Both are perfectly serviceable and now allow me to print (though I have to save files to floppy as Post Script files and go through this whole cumbersome process). However, I'm using some equipment that was probably headed for the landfill or a "recycling facility" in the Far East.

I recently listened to a lecture about the 10,000 year clock the Long Now Foundation is designing. I have to keep hoping that we soon are able to design a computer that is useful for more that a few years and, more importantly, is useful for what it needs to do rather than what it can do. Perhaps we need to re-think what our essential needs are from computers rather than what the latest technology can wow us with (I know this is an ongoing discussion).


Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 1 Aug 08



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