Ask Pablo: How Do Smart Phones Stack Up Against Phone Books?

Image Source: Daniel Y. Go
Dear Pablo: You recently wrote about getting rid of phone books but wouldn't the environmental impact be much greater if every granny got a smart phone instead?

Phone books serve an important purpose for people that are not connected to the internet through smart phones or computers. While most people reading this have smart phones that serve as personal address books, mobile yellow pages and our gateway to Facebook, not everyone does. What my original article was about was not getting rid of phone books altogether, but getting rid of the unwanted ones. Annually an estimated 650,000 tons of phone books are distributed in America, many of them ending up in the trash or recycling (only about 18% of unwanted phone books). The production of our phone books results in the emissions of 1,474,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalents (CO2e) and the use of 44.2 billion liters of water.What Is The Impact Of One Phone Book?
Last time I calculated the impact of all phone books produced for the US, but this time we need to know the impact per phone book. Assuming that an average phone book is around 3 pounds, the greenhouse gas emissions are 3.1 kg CO2e and the water use is 92.5 liters (24.4 gallons) of water per phone book.

What Is The Impact Of One Smart Phone?
Apple has come a long way in terms of the public perception of its environmental impact but, like all other companies in the market, has a long way to go. To Apple's credit they have taken a leadership role in disclosing the environmental impact of their products. Thanks to this I know that an Apple iPhone 3GS has a "carbon footprint" of 55 kg CO2e, 45% of which comes from production while 49% comes from consumer use (transport is 5%). The iPad, in case you were wondering, has a "carbon footprint" of 130 kg (see: Apple's environmental reports).

So How Do Phone Books And Smart Phones Compare?
They really don't, and here's why: The "functional unit" for the phone book and the smart phone just can't be compared apples-to-apples. A smart phone performs many more tasks than a phone book does. In fact I can count only three tasks for the phone book: looking up numbers, acting as paper weight, and taking the place of a booster seat. We need to compare the smart phone to all of the items that it would be replacing, not just the phone book. These items would include a calculator, a flashlight, maps or a GPS device, a lifetime supply of Sudoku books, and so on. Arguably though, most people already have a phone, a calculator, a flashlight, etc. so, while they might be replaced by a smart phone, they would not need to be produced each year like the phone book.

Just to satisfy the basic question, let's assume that the functional unit is equal. A phone book is replaced every year (whether you want it or not) and a smart phone becomes obsolete around the age of two. This means that the 1-year impact, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is 3.1 kg for the phone book and 27.5 kg for the smart phone. There are 275 million mobile phone users in the US and 42% of Americans use smart phones (130 million). Smart phone use is expected to overtake "feature phone" use by 2011. If the people that are currently not using smart phones (179 million, including all ages) were to all get smart phones the additional greenhouse gas emissions would be 9.845 million metric tons of CO2e.

Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for, an experienced greenhouse gas engineer and the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at) or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.
More Resource On Smart Phones:
PowerTutor - An App for Greening Your Smart Phone Apps
5 Features That Would Make Smart Phones Really Smart
3G Capable Smart Phones May Reduce Cumulative Exposure To Electromagnetic Radiation

Tags: Carbon Footprint