Earth Day 2021 was a time to reflect on the impact we as the human race are having on the environment, to consider our actions and do our best with what we can to restore our planet. In an economy where 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of world emissions, change needs to be led by big corporations. Apple being one of them and with their latest environmental report, it shows that taking responsibility for one's environmental impact is possible.
Apple has highlighted their commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2030 and to achieve this Apple needs to reduce its carbon footprint by 75 percent relative to its 2015 carbon output of 38.4 million metric tonnes. In 2020 Apple’s carbon footprint amounted to 22.6 million metric tonnes (reduction from 25.1 million metric tonnes in 2019) with more than 15 million metric tonnes of emissions avoided with the implementation of energy efficiency initiatives in Apple’s products, sourcing clean energy and use of low-carbon materials in production. In addition, Apple have confirmed that their corporate operations became carbon neutral as of April 2020 and 100 percent renewable energy is sourced for all Apple facilities.
Image: Apple, Environmental Report 2021
Similar to previous years, the biggest generator of Apple’s carbon footprint is the production processes and according to the 2021 Environmental Report 71 percent of Apple’s total carbon emissions come from manufacturing, with product use stages creating 19 percent of Apple’s carbon emissions. Comparing to 2019 fiscal year, the proportion of Apple’s carbon emissions’ at manufacturing in 2020 slightly dropped from 75 to 71 percent and product use increased from 16 to 19 percent.
Looking at individual carbon footprint of 2020 iPhones, we can see that emissions are on the rise despite Apple’s efforts of using carbon-neutral design solutions such as more power efficient chipsets, 100 percent recycled tungsten and rare earth elements.
Image: Compare and Recycle
Apple says that by removing charging adapters as default accessories from its iPhone 12 and Apple Watch retail boxes, 861,000 tonnes of copper, tin and zinc ore are expected to be saved. Additionally, up to 70% more retail boxes can be fitted on a single pallet due to smaller packaging which results in more efficient transportation and further carbon footprint elimination. However it’s noteworthy that Apple’s carbon output within transportation has increased from 1.4 million to 1.8 million metric tonnes of CO2-e in 2020 despite packaging changes which is likely to be connected with the growth of the company and the release of the upgraded iPhone SE.
Essentially, iPhones and Apple Watches need to be charged to stay usable and with this decision to no longer supply charging bricks, Apple simply passed on the CO2 of producing and transporting them to third parties from which Apple’s product users are going to purchase the necessary chargers.
When charging bricks were included in iPhone retail boxes, packaging was compact with less wraping required for individual accessories and they were transported in one go. With this change now in place, if an iPhone X user decides to upgrade to one of the iPhone 12 devices, the charger needs to be purchased separately due to the fact that the charging brick the iPhone X was supplied with isn't compatible with iPhone 12 series. As a result, components and associated emissions with sourcing materials that Apple has so proudly removed from its ownership are now the responsibility of other manufacturers that will produce those charging adapters. The key matter to highlight here is that those manufacturers might not have as advanced carbon capture technologies, efficient packaging and clean energy usage in place as Apple. Moreover, they likely don't hold agreements and contracts with transportation companies that use carbon neutral means of distribution. Therefore the carbon footprint of one charger is likely to be much higher than what it would have been if it was made and handled under Apple’s umbrella. A much greener move from Apple would be to agree to switch to universal chargers under the EU proposal, so consumers would not require separate chargers for all kinds of tech they own.
Read More: Are iPhone Bad for the Environment?
Of the interactive voice assistants that Siri competes with, Google Voice and Amazon Echo, the Apple voice assistant is powered solely by renewable energy or offset renewable energy thanks to Apple's switch to 100 percent renewble energy use in its facilities. It is hard to compare Apple to Google and Amazon because the latter have vast server farms that serve many of the internet searches or host actual websites. With Google opening an Oil and Gas division in 2018 and Amazon seemingly backtracking on their pledge to 100% renewables, it becomes a bit clearer the gulf between the companies when it comes to their environmental responsibility.
Recovery of materials from end-of-life products is crucial to eliminating the need for virgin materials for next generation products and Apple is making steps towards reuse of recycled elements with the help of disassembly robots Daisy and Dave. Apple has reported that compared to 2019 they’ve doubled the amount of recycled cobalt that is used in iPhone batteries and for the first time 100% recycled tungsten has been used to make haptic engines for iPhone 12 series and new Apple Watch. In total, 35 percent of tungsten used by Apple in 2020 has been sourced from disassembling older devices.
Apple has mentioned that from one metric tonne of iPhones, Daisy can recover as much gold and copper as over 150 metric tonnes of ore. These recovered materials can then make their way back to logic and circuit boards, camera systems and connectors of new devices. While Apple has not shared any detailed figures about the amount of recycled devices, the tech giant managed to refurbish 10.4 million devices that return to Apple through programmes like Apple Trade-in, iPhone Upgrade and AppleCare. Given the iPhone sales figures that are estimated to be 200 million units in 2020, 10.4 million sounds like a drop in the ocean, but it’s the right direction for Apple to be taking and hopefully one day we will see an iPhone made of 100% recycled components.
Image: Apple, Environmental Report 2021
Apple are making the steps in the right direction, however the paradox is still there: every new product release directly results in environmental destruction. Going forward, Apple needs to show that carbon emissions can be brought down further given the company's capacity and resources.
Gimmicks and stunts to remove items from the retail box have never in the past been environmentally led, and removing the charging brick is likely to have the exact opposite effect by increasing waste packaging and emissions caused by transportation.
It is frustrating that even though Apple has so far kept to its commitments to reduce the environmental impact of their products, and are by far the most environmentally conscious of the big tech manufacturers, their products are yet to become sustainable and funnelling their profits into projects to reduce their impact should be the standard and not the outlier.
Cover image: Apple
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