The iPhone 4 and Sustainability

Now that the iPhone 4 hype has died down a bit, I figure it might be time to take a look at how it does on the sustainability front, mainly in regard to new features, and to the last generation of iPhones.


The new iPhone 4, image taken from


One of the biggest change is the cases, with a stainless steel frame and two glass faces replacing a polycarbonate body and single glass face. The new “unibody” frame should be stronger and durable than the old polycarbonate back, and is probably not much worse from an environmental standpoint, with both materials having about the same carbon footprint per kg. I’d say it’s also more recyclable, with steel  having a larger existing market. Looking at iFixit’s 3G teardown, the old back also had molded-in metal inserts, making it far more difficult to recycle economically. I’d call the new body an improvement. The new aluminosilicate glass faces are claimed to be recyclable by Apple, but given this may be a relatively exotic blend, it’s hard to tell if this can safely be put in the normal recycling stream. I’m guessing they intend for the phone to be returned to Apple at the end-of-life for this purpose. It’s hard to know how often this actually happens, but we can certainly hope…. With the increase in scratch resistance, I’d say this is also an improvement in sustainability, as long as the recycling potential is taken advantage of.

The first thing that comes to mind on how the iPhone could unsustainable is that it is yet another new product, driven hype and marketing, that a large number of people want to buy. It offers some evolutionary improvements over the previous generation, but no ground breaking changes in functionality. So people will be probably buy this because they want it, not because they need it. It would be interesting to see how long consumers keep their iPhones in general, especially after the introduction of the App Store. In itself, I’d say the App Store is an improvement in sustainability, as it’s expanding the usefulness of the existing device, without requiring the purchase of a new gadget, requiring more materials and energy. The only resources needed are programming brains. So, if people are “maxing out” on apps before upgrading to a new phone, I’d say that’s a good thing. If they’re buying a new iPhone just because it exists, I’d say that’s a step in the wrong direction, sustainability wise.

The App Store is interesting in regard to sustainability not just from the viewpoint of changing the life-cycle of the phone, but also in how it changes what the phone can do. This generation of iPhone has a pretty amazing array of sensors that could be used to do all kinds of interesting things with sustainability. A complete list of sensors:

  • A 5 MP rear camera
  • A VGA front camera
  • A-GPS
  • Three-axis gyro
  • Accelerometer
  • Proximity sensor
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Two microphones
  • Compass

So, to start you have a fairly powerful, easily programmable computer that can tell where it is, anywhere on the planet, how fast it is going, which direction it’s pointed, how much force is being applied to it, what kind of light conditions it’s in, how noisy it is, and it can get a visual picture of its surroundings. Additionally, it can communicate with the world using any of the following:

  • 3G wireless data
  • WiFi
  • 3.5 mm stereo jack
  • Loudspeaker
  • A dock connector

meaning it can be connected to the Internet and people in a variety of ways. To me, the most obvious applications for all of this sensing, communicating and computing power would be in the improvement of energy efficiency in society. In fact, some applications already exist for this purpose, including apps to improve fuel economy, find solar energy potential at a given location, or to give assorted sustainability advice. I think there’s much more potential if the data that these devices are generating almost 24/7, all around the globe could be harnessed to really understand what people and society are doing everyday. For example, GPS and accelerometer data could be used to analyze traffic congestion, or aggressive driving, both contributors to increased fuel use. Or the same data could be used to see how quickly different form of transportation actually get people around a city. The concern with sharing all of this information would of course be privacy for the consumer, but proper safeguards could hopefully be established to counter this, or programs implemented could offer economic benefits to the user as well, perhaps in reduced gas costs or commuting times. The most exciting thing is however the potential presented by these data gathering devices in the wild to anyone studying or practicing sustainable theories.


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