Ask Pablo: What's Better, A Lifetime of Phone Books or a Lifetime of iPhones?

Kellen/CC BY-NC 2.0

Dear Pablo: What's Better, A Lifetime of Phone Books or a Lifetime of iPhones?

It must be phone book season because the number of phonebook-related comments and questions in my inbox have spiked recently. This question is by far the best, and it really gets to the heart of the matter. People young enough to understand smart phones just can't seem to understand why anyone would need a phone book when Google is right there in your pocket.

We Know They Are Annoying But How Bad Are Phone Books?

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 are recycled). Making these phone books results in the emissions of 1,474,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalents (CO2e). Assuming that an average phone book is about 3 pounds, the greenhouse gas emissions are 3.1 kg CO2e per phone book.

© Failblog.org

What Can I Do To Opt-Out From Phone Book Delivery?

The truth is that phone books still provide a valuable service to some people, but for the rest of us they have become an unwanted nuisance and just end up in the recycling bin. Luckily the phone book industry has created a website where you can opt-out of the annual phone book delivery. I was skeptical but I opted-out last year and, sure enough, I didn't get a phone book this year. Instead, I received this door tag informing me that my phone book was not delivered and how to opt back in. While some cynics might see this as more wasted paper (it was printed on FSC paper with 30% post-consumer recycled content) or a continuance of unwelcome solicitation, I appreciated it.

© Pablo Päster

What Is The Impact Of A Lifetime Of iPhones

Let's imagine that the advancement of technology stood still and you would require a new smart phone every two years, from the ago of 16 to age 76, or 30 smart phones over 60 years. It is probably more likely that the technology will be implanted straight into your brain, bear with me while we explore the answer.

Apple website/Screen capture

Thanks to Apple's product LCA website I know that an Apple iPhone 4S has a "carbon footprint" of 70 kg CO2e (up from the iPhone 3GS' 55 kg), 69% of which comes from production while 23% comes from consumer use (transport is 6%). In case you were wondering, the iPad2 has a "carbon footprint" of 105 kg (the original iPad's footprint was 130 kg).

So, How Do Phone Books Stack Up To iPhones Over A Lifetime Of Use?

With a carbon footprint of 3.1 kg CO2e per phone book, a lifetime of phone books amounts to 186 kg CO2. The iPhone with its 70 kg CO2 adds up to 2.1 metric tonnes 2.

So The Phone Book Really Is Better?

According to the calculations above, a lifetime of smart phones has over eleven times the impact of a lifetime of phone books. You are probably already thinking that this isn't a fair comparison, which I think has been clear from the start. Yes, smart phones can be used to look up phone numbers, find local businesses and local government services, and can help you find discounts offered by local merchants, but smart phones are capable of much more.

Using my life cycle assessment background I can make some educated guesses regarding the impact of the material goods replaced by some of these capabilities. Smart phones today contain countless features and the ability to download apps that add even more capability. A smart phone replaces a land-line telephone (~20 kg 2), a digital camera (~40 kg 2), a video camera (~40 kg 2), voice recorder (~10 kg 2), MP3 player (iPod Nano: 13 kg 2), and GPS device (~40 kg 2). If these devices are replace, on average, every 5 years, then we can add almost 2,000 kg 2 to the equation. Already, the smart phone is looking better and better in comparison, not to mention the fact that they are beginning to replace televisions and gaming consoles. Again, these are only guesses, but serve to illustrate that the smart phone needs to be compared to more than just phone books to have a fair comparison.

Pablo Päster has been writing Ask Pablo since 2006 and is Principal Environmental Consultant at Hara. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com and connect to his RSS feed.

Tags: Apple Inc | Apps | iPhone