9

The following claims are made in this Wired magazine article titled, “How the iPhone Helped Save the Planet” from June 29, 2019; bold emphasis is mine:

Total electricity use in the US, for example, has been essentially flat for almost a decade. For decades prior to the Great Recession, plastics consumption in the US grew more than 50 percent faster than the overall economy did, but since 2009 the situation has reversed, with plastic use growing almost 15 percent slower than the economy as a whole.

The article goes on to make a similar claim about overall consumption of other resources by the U.S. economy:

“Year after year, the US is generally using less total steel, copper, gold, fertilizer, water, cropland, timber, paper, and other physical building blocks of an economy.”

These claims are stunning, yet the article cites no references or provides any real substance to these claims.

So are these claims valid? Or merely “truthy” and hyperbolic.

  • 8
    "15 percent slower than the economy" does not mean "flatlined". So plastic is out. Perhaps your second quote does mean "flatlined", however. So maybe the other parts of your title are still in play. I looked up steel and copper, and they seem to be lower since 2009 than before. – GEdgar Jul 1 at 20:45
  • 1
    Electricity flatlined as well. But I don't quite see how that's "because of" the iPhone (which wasn't produced in the US during that timespan), or how 4 TWh consumed / year at a carbon footprint per capita three times worse than Europe is "helping save the planet". ;-) – DevSolar Jul 2 at 15:50
  • 1
    The reasoning is this. Now I have one iPhone. Before, I would have had a cellphone a camera or two, a video camera, a magnifying glass, a compass, on and on. The resources needed to produce that one iPhone are far less than the resources formerly needed to produce all those devices that it replaces. – GEdgar Jul 2 at 18:05
  • Should we assume we are not counting all the energy and resources that go into making an imported cellphone (for example), which is much greater than what is in the phone itself? – Keith McClary Jul 14 at 5:20
9

TL;DR: The (complicated) claim for plastic is nearly true. The claim for steel and timber is false -- consumption of both of these commodities is climbing. For everything else, the claim is true -- consumption is flat or decreasing for electricity, copper, gold, fertilizer, water, cropland, and paper.

Almost true for plastic

For plastic, the claim is:

For decades prior to the Great Recession, plastics consumption in the US grew more than 50 percent faster than the overall economy did, but since 2009 the situation has reversed, with plastic use growing almost 15 percent slower than the economy as a whole.

The claim is very specific, but the data sources aren't provided (or even explained). What is meant by "plastics consumption"? What about "the overall economy"? There are several ways to look at each of these.

But, at the very least we should expect the trend in plastic production to change with respect to GDP.

The definitive source for plastics data in the U.S. seems to be The Resin Review. It's referenced by the EPA and several papers on plastic production trends, but unfortunately it's behind a paywall.

User @derobert suggested another source in the comments: FRED, the Federal Reserve Economic Database. Here's industrial plastic and rubber production in the U.S. vs GDP:

enter image description here

Here we can see that the claim is almost true. For nearly two decades (1983 to 2000), plastics production did outpace GDP growth. But in the decade before the recession it was slower than GDP, and since the recession it roughly matches GDP.

False for steel and timber

Steel -- on a post-recession rebound

From the U.S. Geological Survey National Minerals Information Center:

enter image description here

Timber -- on a post-recession rebound

Ibid:

enter image description here

Lumber is one processing step beyond timber, but the data was more complete than what the USGS had for "logs and wood chips," which would technically be closer to timber.

True for everything else

... except for "other physical building blocks of the economy" (though sales of Legos are declining, which is certainly a bad sign for childhood nostalgia, if not for the economy).

Copper -- essentially flat

Ibid:

enter image description here

Gold -- declining

Ibid:

enter image description here

Fertilizer -- essentially flat

Ibid. In this case, I'm assuming that fertilizer production tracks production of nitrogen fixed as ammonia.

enter image description here

Paper -- declining

Ibid:

enter image description here

Electricity -- essentially flat

From a recent U.S. Energy Information Agency blog post, "Record U.S. electricity generation in 2018 driven by record residential, commercial sales":

enter image description here

Water -- declining

From the USGS Trends in Water Use:

enter image description here

Cropland -- declining

From the USDA Economic Research Service Major Land Uses:

enter image description here

  • Does the Census Quarterly Financial Report actually answer the question asked? The quote is about plastic consumption, but the QFR appears to be about plastic production in the US only, so e.g., doesn't include imported plastics. wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/USA/Year/2017/… appears to have data on imports. (I'm nowhere near familiar enough with this data to write an answer with it. There may be all kinds of caveats I have no clue about. Not even 100% sure it excludes imports ). – derobert Jul 2 at 20:02
  • 1
    @derobert that's a good point, however I think for this sort of "gut check" the census data is sufficient, especially considering how oil and gas production (the feedstock for plastic) has ramped up in the U.S. – LShaver Jul 2 at 20:49
  • The world bank imports number is bigger than the QFR number. (Or maybe not; possibly it's not annualized.) Also, looking at census.gov/econ/qfr/mmws/current/qfr_pub.pdf it doesn't sound like QFR is trying to measure plastic production at all. Instead it's trying to measure the size of company's who largest single business is plastic (not even the majority of the company!), as noted on pp. xiii–xiv. – derobert Jul 2 at 21:18
  • 1
    Also, fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=ojjW – derobert Jul 2 at 21:33
  • Well, I know there is some consternation here, but unless a better answer comes along, this is the answer. Goo work, @LShaver! – JakeGould Jul 3 at 3:19

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .