Green groups shine light on safety of Apple iPhone

The British launch of the Apple iPhone is set to be overshadowed by pressure from environmentalists who want the gadget to be made greener.

Green groups are demanding that the UK version of the phone, which goes on sale on Friday, should be free of the toxic chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants, that Greenpeace alleges are contained in its American counterpart.

Zeina Alhajj, campaign co-ordinator for Greenpeace, said: “The iPhone is a unique product and for us it is a missed opportunity for Apple to combine the innovation of the product with a green performance.”

The campaign was announced as Apple and its UK partners, O2 and Carphone Warehouse, outlined ambitious sales targets for the iPhone, which is Apple’s first foray into the mobile market. Carphone hopes to sell 10,000 of the phones on launch day, and O2 has ordered “several hundred thousand” units for sale over the next couple of months. Apple insists that the iPhone complies with the European Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive. The company points out that it has already pledged to eliminate the use of PVC and brominated flame retardants in its products by the end of next year.

But the phone — the year’s most eagerly awaited gadget — is fast becoming the focal point for a wider assault on the multibillion-pound mobile sector and its alleged lack of eco-credentials. Green lobbyists say that the sector — which accounts for about 5 per cent of the global stock market — is a significant polluter and that mobile companies must work to address the problem.

“Over the life cycle of a phone there is massive pollution,” Ms Alhajj said. “The phone companies are making big changes — transparency and reporting is far ahead of what it was four years ago, for example — but it is still far away from being a really green industry.”

In a report this year, Greenpeace claimed to have found evidence of widespread contamination of rivers and underground wells with hazardous chemicals in the countries in which electronics goods are produced. The increasing ease with which Western consumers discard their old phones for the latest model is another concern. Only a small proportion of old phones are recycled. Nokia, the world’s biggest mobile handset manufacturer, says that about 48 per cent of old handsets are left forgotten in a drawer.

Another problem is encouraging the mobile phone giants to be accountable for the practices of their suppliers. Although five companies may help in the manufacturing of a phone, the firm with its brand name on the final product must take responsibility for what is going on in the entire chain, green groups say.

Aware that its practices are being scrutinised ever more closely, the mobile industry has made moves towards becoming more eco-friendly. Its interest has been fuelled in part by directives such as RoHS and WEEE, which pertains to the waste of electrical and electronic equipment.

The fashionability of the green cause — and the keenness of consumers to embrace businesses they deem to be environmentally sound — has proved motivational, too. Nokia asserts that up to 80 per cent of its handsets are recyclable. It publicly identifies all the materials in its handsets, and last year it cut the packaging it uses by 54 per cent — enabling it to put about 1,200 fewer lorries on the road, it says.

Vodafone, the biggest European mobile operator, boasts that renewable energy accounted for 17 per cent of its network energy use last year, an increase of 28 per cent on the previous year. Most of Britain’s big operators are signed up with companies such as Fonebak, which operate recycling schemes.

Many manufacturers acknowledge that greenness can be good for business. Markus Terho, the director of environmental affairs for Nokia, said: “Companies that care for the environment are viewed as better employers.”

World of waste

—— In the Western world, phones made to last ten years typically are discarded after 18 months
—— 105 million phones are thrown out in Europe every year. In Britain alone, about 15 million mobile phones are replaced each year
—— There are nearly 50,000 network base stations in the UK
—— The mobile industry in Britain accounts for about 0.7 per cent of CO2 emissions
—— Each mobile subscriber is responsible for about 55 kg (120lb) of CO2 emissions a year
—— To source the gold in a single phone circuit board, about 100kg of mine waste is generated
—— Nokia, the world’s biggest mobile handset maker, says that up to 80 per cent of the materials in its devices can be recycled Nearly 50 per cent of old phones are sitting in a drawer
—— Two thirds of the power consumed by a mobile phone during its use is lost when the battery is full but the phone is left attached to a charger still plugged into the mains

Source: Forum for the Future, Earth Calling report, Fonebak, Nokia