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Thinking About Upgrading to an iPhone 15? Consider the Environment, Too

Sales of Apple’s new iPhone are hot, with the company expected to produce more than 75 million units worldwide before year-end. But what happens to the millions of “old” phones the iPhone 15 replaces?
September 28th, 2023 by 

Experts warn that the amount of E-waste is predicted to double by 2050, with only a small portion of it recycled. Photo Credit: BingAI/Michael Ivins

Last Friday, Apple released the iPhone 15 in stores, selling out available stock around the world and marking the fifth fall in a row the company has released a new model. Yet before consumers upgrade, an expert in ethical consumerism advises they should also think about the consequences of the decision.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as of 2022, roughly 59.5 U.S.-measured tons of E-waste – electrical and electronic equipment – is produced each year, an amount predicted to double by 2050. Only 17% of that is recycled.

The rest is dumped, often to be sifted through in low-income countries by informal workers, including children, seeking to extract valuable materials at grave risk to their health,” according to a UNEP report. This also creates unintended environmental consequences, including toxic chemicals from the units’ plastics, metals and components seeping into drinking water and polluting soil.

While Apple might lead the way in terms of environmentally ethical sourcing of materials used to create its products, it also is a leader in constructing its products in such a way that they cannot be upgraded or repaired, thus forcing consumers to buy new models. 

Society does consistently consume more and more per capita every year and the rates of consumption are completely out of control,” said Ellis Jones, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, and an expert in corporate social responsibility, sustainability and ethical consumerism. “As we move further into the digital world, our electronic consumption becomes particularly tricky because most of what is produced now is more disposable, and in various ways, quite difficult to recycle.”

Jones said corporations must become proactive in terms of creating products that are not disposable. It’s an issue he’s seen firsthand, as he works with his 12-year-old son to update and rebuild such items. Through this process he’s discovered that some mobile phones, including the iPhone, are constructed so that if any internal parts or screens are replaced, even with identical parts, they might cease to work or function properly. This is because they are built to sense when their original parts have been removed and replaced, he said.  

In response, a fix-it movement, similar to the DIY movement, has started in an effort to reinforce the four Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle and repair.

People want to learn about and how to make their stuff last longer. They want to fix it themselves and not have to pay someone else to do the work,” Jones said.

Nonprofits, including iFixIt, are manufacturing specialty tools that can be used to remove screws from electronics when traditional flat-head and Phillips screwdrivers don’t. They also lobby on behalf of consumers for greater access to tools to fix devices. Public interest research groups are evaluating electronics and rating them for the repairability and some are providing replacement parts, including batteries and screens. It can be a game of cat and mouse, though, as over time companies continue to make it more difficult to access and repair products.

Similarly, nonprofits such as Fairphone are producing mobile phones that are more socially and environmentally responsible and assembled in a way that they are repairable by design. Previously only available in Europe, Fairphone, which runs on an /e/OS operating system (an alternative to Apple and Google), in July released its latest model in the U.S. in partnership with Murena.

Jones said while Apple is an easy target given its market share and fervent consumer base, it is not the only company that needs to make changes.

“Apple is essentially just doing the same things as every business would do to maximize profits. If it would all of a sudden make its products repairable, they would essentially be disarming before their competitors disarm. They would lose market share,” Jones said.

For this reason, he suggests that it’s past time for federal governmental regulators to step in. An example of possible legislation could replicate what some states, including Massachusetts, have adopted with right to repair laws. While limited – the Massachusetts law pertains only to automotive repairs – Jones sees this as a start. 

“The playing field needs to be leveled,” he said.

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