The majority of people in the developed world are familiar with Apple’s products. Whether it’s phones, tablets, computers or watches, they have a product available with their infamous logo on it. If you look at their marketing materials or watch any of their announcement events, you’ll see that they make quite a big deal about their environmental commitments. In this post, I’m going to look into these commitments in more detail to find out if Apple actually is environmentally friendly.
One of the biggest environmental costs of technological products is, of course, the manufacturing of it. There are many different metals, rare earth materials and plastics used in each one. These come from areas all around the world. According to Apple’s 2021 environmental progress report, one of Apple’s main goals is to only use recycled and renewable materials in their products. This is a rather big goal that would be hugely beneficial for the environment. Unfortunately right now they are not close to achieving this. Currently, 12% of the materials they used are recycled. On the plus side, the recently released MacBook Air does use 40% recycled materials. Their use of recycled materials does seem to be increasing each year. According to the report, part of the problem is that they are being constrained by limited availability of recycled cobalt, glass, lithium and a material called tantalum. It’s clear that more development is required in general e-waste recycling in order for them to achieve this goal.
If we compare this to one of their biggest competitors in the smartphone industry, Samsung, we can see noticeable differences. Samsung has made their own commitments to increasing the use of recycled plastics in their phones as well as using more recycled paper. This is a step in the right direction but there seems to be very little action on other recycled materials. Considering a large percentage of the environmental costs of manufacturing are related to the metals and other rare materials, it’s important for companies to be looking at these areas more closely. It seems clear that Apple is leading the way in this regard.
Packaging & transport
Whilst the main problem with these kinds of products is the manufacturing of the products, the packaging it ships in as well as the transport of the product are also potential concerns. Apple’s goal is to eliminate plastics in their packaging entirely by 2025 in addition to only using recycled materials. They’ve been making good progress on this one. Since 2015, the percentage of plastic used in their packaging has fallen from 21% to 6% in 2020. The percentage of recycled fibers used is currently 59% which is a good start. The remaining amount also comes from responsibly sourced forests.
Regarding transportation, they state that they are making an active effort to use more low-carbon transportation methods such as rail when possible. In some areas such as Europe, they try to work with carbon-neutral carriers for delivery (such as companies which deliver on bikes). There doesn’t seem to be any concrete information on this so it is hard to verify. Considering that most of their products are assembled in Asia, which are usually transported via plane, they are likely not environmentally friendly in their transport. They have, however, made progress by reducing the size of their packaging. For example, the iPhone 12 box was made significantly smaller which allowed them to ship 70% more phones in the same pallet. This will have a big impact on the carbon emissions for each individual product.
When you finally have the product in your hands, the environmental cost of using it begins. According to Apple, 19% of the device’s overall carbon footprint comes from actually using it. The main cost is the electricity use of powering and recharging the device. The environmental cost of this depends on where you are charging it and the electricity grid of your country. Apple does not have control over this. What they do have control over is how much energy the device needs to operate. According to their environmental report, the average energy usage of their products has decreased by 70% since 2008. Their new Mac processor, the M1 chip, has also led to substantial reductions in energy usage. This is great to see but there is more work to be done.
Apple has faced criticism for how difficult it is to repair their products. Through their use of proprietary screws, glues and tools, it can be very difficult for someone to repair their own phone. However, in most cases, an Apple technician is able to repair phones without needing a full replacement. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with Apple’s approach to repairability, this doesn’t seem to be a major environmental concern if it is possible to get them repaired. Of course, this could lead to it being more expensive to repair your device. Some have stated concerns about Apple taking several components and them combining them into one chip. When one part of this chip fails, the whole chip needs to be replaced. This is a valid concern. However, it’s important to factor in that this chip is usually smaller and therefore needs less materials to be produced in the first place. If the chip is reliable, then there is likely no significant impact on the environment.
End of product life
When you’re done using the product for whatever reason, what happens to it is a big factor in the overall environmental cost. If it ends up in general trash, this is a huge waste of the materials in the product. To Apple’s advantage, there is a big market for second-hand Apple devices. Apple has their own refurbishment program where they fix up old iPhones so that they can be used for years to come. iPhones can be passed on to several owners and used for 5 – 10 years. This obviously helps the environment.
In an ideal world all of the materials in products that have reached the end of the line would be separated and recycled to make future devices. This is an area which has yet to be fully solved and is not specific to Apple. Right now the recycling of e-waste is very poor. It is very expensive for recycling companies to have the tools needed to disassemble so many different types of electronics. In a lot of cases, e-waste is sent to developing countries in Asia where unsafe practices are used to try to extract materials which may be releasing toxic fumes into the air in these countries and putting employees at risk. A lot of the e-waste doesn’t end up getting recycled at all. One of Apple’s solutions to this is their own recycling robot called Daisy. This robot can disassemble iPhones much more efficiently than regular e-waste recycling. It is unclear how many iPhones are going through this system compared to general waste and e-waste recycling facilities though.
If you’re wondering if Apple is environmentally friendly, I think we can conclude that they are putting in a lot of effort in a lot of areas. Ranging from them using 100% renewable energy in all of their facilities to goals for being completely carbon neutral by 2030, it’s clear that they’re working hard on this; so compared to most of their competitors in the smartphone, tablet and computer industries, they are definitely the environmentally friendly choice. However, the most environmentally friendly device is the one you already have, something you can read more about in our general post about the manufacturing of smartphones.
There is an argument to be made that a company that is trying to sell you a new phone every year could not be environmentally friendly in principle. The manufacture, use and recycling of these devices are tough on the environment, something which is made worse if they are being replaced on a regular basis. If they released a new device every 3 years instead of every year, this would be better for the environment than what they are currently doing.
They are, of course, a company responding to the demands of its customers who are constantly expecting the latest and greatest new thing. Given our modern society, it seems Apple is as environmentally friendly as we’re currently going to get.