Will the New iPhone Lead to an E-Waste Avalanche?

Will the New iPhone Lead to an E-Waste Avalanche?

Updated, 1:45pm

If you follow tech at all, you know that Apple CEO Tim Cook this morning announced its big new iPhone -- the iPhone 4S, which boasts a new, faster processor, better battery life, a nicer camera, a fancy digital assistant, and other shiny features.

The news gets my gadget-loving heart beating just a little faster, of course. But from a green standpoint, the news is probably a little less exciting. There's no question that the phone is going to make a big splash in the market, but just how much of an e-waste tidal wave will it generate?

To say the new iPhone will be widely adopted is a tiny understatement. There are three main reasons why: 1) The fact that it's a new iPhone. 2) The new phone will be more widely available (on Sprint as well as Verizon and AT&T). 3) It's been nearly a year and a half since the last iPhone was released.

Together, that adds up to a big deal, and a potentially huge e-waste impact.

Apple has already sold 55 million iPhones in the first three quarters of 2011, and nearly 130 million phones total.

This year's boost came in part from the expansion to Verizon's network, which happened in February and added a huge customer base for new iPhones. Many of those customers have been holding out for the new iPhone before making the investment, so expect a big rush for the iPhone 5.

But there will also be an iPhone made available on Sprint's cellular network for the first time, so that adds another 52 million or so new potential customers for the iPhone.

And on top of all that, it's been almost a year and a half since the last iPhone was released, so even AT&T subscribers who bought right when the iPhone 4 first became available are now within the window of having an easily justifiable upgrade.

As Apple fans know, of course, justifying an upgrade is not entirely necessary, especially if the new phone has as many new features and performance boosts as this one does.

All of which is a long way of saying that Apple is about to sell just a ton of new phones. And that an equally sized ton of phones are about to go to landfill. How are companies in the e-waste business going to deal with this surge?

Will there even be a surge? Even a 16-month-old iPhone is likely to have some resale value, which is going to mean the companies like eBay will get a slice of the Apple pie.

The company last year launched their Instant Sale option to give customers and easy way to see the embedded value in the gadgets they no longer want. For example, you can sell your nearly new iPhone 4 from Verizon's CDMA network for $247.61 instantly on eBay, and get $347.50 for one on AT&T's network. Older phones will take less of a bite out of the cost of a new iPhone -- an 8 gigabyte iPhone 3g, which is over three years old, will fetch you $121.

For people who are upgrading from much older phones, or just low-end phones that are two years out, there is a great likelihood that those phones will make their way into the waste stream. We've covered repeatedly over the years not just the toxics that can seep out of electronics in landfills, but the health and environmental hazards from irresponsible e-waste dismantling. (See here and here for a couple of stories about e-waste hazards.)

I asked Ken Beyer, CEO of CloudBlue, how the new iPhone might affect his business -- does a new iPhone make a big splash for e-waste? (CloudBlue, which I profiled last year is an E-Stewards-certified responsible recycler that is targeted at the business market, including real-time tracking of your e-waste from your facilities to where they're disposed.)

In an emailed response, Beyer wrote: "With the introduction of the new iPhone, we expect to see unprecedented volumes of older phones coming back through the reverse logistics channels for recycling or refurbishment and resale. CloudBlue works with partners like Gazelle, where consumers are trading in used iPhones approximately every 15 seconds. In the next few days, we expect to see tens of thousands of older iPhones coming back."

It's a tidal wave of old phones, in other words, but it's not a tsunami. Beyer added: "After the launch of the iPhone 4, we saw a large spike of phone returns and trade-ins within a few weeks of the product launch. The quantity was easily absorbed by secondary resale markets and our environmentally compliant recycling processes."

Updated, 1:45PM: Others in the e-waste industry also expect a boom in business from the new iPhone -- and more of it coming from businesses.

Redemtech President Robert Houghton told me in an email he expects to see a large quantity of phones coming from corporate recycling and resale programs because more companies are adopting "Bring Your Own Device" (BYOD) programs that allow employees to use their personal technology in the workplace.

That shift has in part been driven by Apple's iOS devices -- as employees brought the must-have consumer goods into the office, they were relatively quickly adapted to business purposes, at time against the wishes of corporate IT managers. And BYOD programs also mean that companies have to evolve their IT asset disposition practices as well.

"To ensure environmentally responsible disposal, many companies are encouraging employees to turn in their personal devices through well-established corporate disposition programs rather than consumer channels where recycling standards tend to be much more lax," wrote Houghton. "The gadgets are coming and the e-waste is mounting -- it's incumbent on these organizations to pro-actively adapt their processes to ensure truly responsible recycling."

At the end of the day, a new iPhone is a mixed bag of environmental benefits. It was interesting to see that, for the first time since 2007 (after Apple succumbed to Greenpeace's pressure campaign), there was no mention of the green manufacturing practices Apple has been using -- and presumably continues to use -- to make their gadgets without brominated flame retardants, PVC, or other chemical nasties.

And the iPhone 4S is no doubt more energy-efficient than older phones, which is also good -- but it's just part of the progress that the tech industry is making on energy efficiency -- it's table stakes at this point.

But new hardware means a wave of old hardware being disposed of in one way or other, and that's a significant downside.

I think the best news to come out of this is how a diverse array of companies have stepped up to handle this wave of outdated electronics. While we're still a long way from designing electronics for reuse and easy upgradeability, there's a lot to be said for how the business world is making a big market opportunity out of our wasteful electronics habits.

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