Do You Know What Your Smartphone Truly Costs for the Environment?  

Reduce your internet footprint with “smart” phone usage.

Climate Change Special Edition

By Erika Macrina / Matthew staff 

Apple recently declared the company is committed to be 100% carbon neutral for all its products by 2030. The tech corporation has already invested in new ways to lower energy use and help switch its supply chain to clean energy. However, as of right now, the company relies on a production system that is not at all green.  

Free to use under the Unsplash license. In 2021, Apple sold 2.2 billion iPhones. 

The iPhone contains more than 1,000 substances, with large amounts of plastics, iron, and aluminum. The latest iPhone contains 31 grams of aluminum alone.  

“The most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust is also the most abundant metal in the iPhone,” wrote Brian Merchant in Los Angeles Times, author of the 2017 book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.  

Large amounts of energy, waste and water are spent mining, smelting, refining, and transporting of ore during the manufacturing of our smartphones. Based on data provided by Vice, producing a single iPhone requires mining 34 kilograms of ore, 100 liters of water, and 20.5 grams of cyanide. In 2021, Apple released their Environmental Progress report, which estimates their latest manufacturing. For instance, in 2020 Apple facilities used 1.29 billion gallons of water, 54% of which was recycled water, rainwater, and recovered condensate. In this way, the company saved 111 million gallons of freshwater. 

The metals Apple uses originate from the mines of Bangka Island, Indonesia and Cerro Rico, Bolivia. Miners dig their way through about 75 pounds of rock for only a few grams. These mines once supplied silver for the Spanish Empire. The company has used those same tunnels for years to provide tin and cobalt for their products. Miners were exposed to dangerous working conditions. According to a BBC report, the life expectancy of a miner in Cerro Rico is estimated to be 40 years. Even worse, UNICEF report found that children of six years old work in the tunnels.  

In 2017, Apple cracks down cobalt supplier in Congo as child labor persists. The Company pledged to clean up its cobalt supply chain, but the technology giant said it wanted to avoid hurting the Congolese miners by cutting them off.  

However, in December 2019, attorneys from International Rights Advocates, a law firm based in Washington, DC, sued Apple and other big firms for involvement in the injuries or deaths of child miners. In response, Apple said that it had been improving standards since 2014 and that it is “constantly working to raise the bar for ourselves and the industry.” It also said that it had made innovations in cobalt recycling. The Company has increased its transparency, publishing a list of cobalt smelters, just as it did for its conflict mineral smelters. 

Mining does not only affect people’s living conditions, making them earn just $5 dollars (£3.35 pounds) a day, but it also impacts the environment. Negative consequences of the process are: 

  • The destruction of animal habitats where the minerals are mined from; 
  • The contribution to deforestation and pollution of the climate.  

After the raw minerals are mined, they are transported to a refinery. The minerals are moved with cargo ship and rail. Cargo ships require about 300 million tons of dirty fuel, which means they emit almost 3% of the world’s total amount of carbon emissions. Therefore, they cannot be considered environmentally friendly.  

The starting pay for workers at Apple’s factory, in Zhengzhou, China, is about $3.15 an hour, as reported by the New York Times in 2019. 

Workers are exposed to major health risks, such as kidney cancer. Not to mention, the smelter itself is not sustainable at all. It requires from 14,000 – 16,000 kilowatt hours to produce one ton of aluminum. All smelting operations emit significant amounts of toxins. 

Less than 1% of rare minerals are recycled, which means 98% of the rare earth minerals used in iPhones are thrown away after the phone’s usable life, and they usually end up in municipal landfills. Others just remain around people’s houses in their old drawers.  

Apple’s vice president of environment, Lisa Jackson, said that the company has doubled the number of their suppliers to 44, who have agreed to run their Apple operations in renewable energy. For now, Apple will use an external supplier chain to recycle rare earths, not from previously used iPhones. 

At this point, one could wonder if smartphones can really be eco-friendly at all. There are some valuable alternatives for the iPhone. Fairphone is one of these. Their smartphones are designed for longevity, and easy repair. In this way, the company can reduce the environmental footprint of their products. Another option is Teracube, which sustainable smartphones are engineered and serviced to last at least four years. 

How to reduce your internet footprint with smartphone usage? 

We should also consider how we access the internet. We need cellular antennas, routers, satellites, but also data storage centers. All of this requires electricity and other resources to operate. However, we can still reduce our internet footprint every day.  

Photo by ready made on

One example is we can try to fix our smartphones before getting a new device. We can reuse functional parts and choose to buy products that safeguard workers. We can also disable plugins when we don’t use them.  

These are all suggestions for the conscious consumer to make, but hopefully Apple will stick to their goal and lead by example, encouraging other major tech companies to cut down their carbon emissions.  

The production of our smartphones really has a cost and an impact on the environment, and this is the reason why we should act consciously when it comes to shopping for electronic gadgets.