Now more than ever more and more companies are recognising their impact on the environment and are taking climate action. While some are still finding their ways to be kinder to the planet, Apple has been on this journey for more than a decade. With Apple’s latest environmental report covering the 2021 fiscal year, we take a peek at this bumpy road towards net zero and review Apple’s efforts to make its products greener.
Apple’s carbon footprint peaked in 2015 at 38.4 million metric tons, and ever since the iPhone maker was on a mission to chip away at them. In 2021 Apple’s gross carbon footprint resulted in 23.2 million metric tons which is a reduction of 40% compared to 2015, but also is a slight increase year on year. However, the reported net emissions remained flat due to Apple increasing their carbon offsets.
It’s the second year Apple is carbon neutral for their corporate operations which includes direct emissions, use of electricity, travel and commute. In 2021, switching supplier energy use to renewable sources avoided 13.9 million metric tons of CO2, that’s equivalent to charging 1.6 trillion smartphones. In total, 23 million metric tons of emissions were avoided across Apple’s value chain due to implemented carbon reduction initiatives.
While the increase in gross emissions in 2021 can be understood given the 30% rise in profits, we hope Apple won’t go down the slippery slope of growing the emissions while chasing profits and ‘compensate’ for the increases by boosting carbon offsetting. In a world where big tech and manufacturing companies account for the majority of carbon created, they shouldn’t rely on carbon offsetting, but rather take steps to reduce primary carbon output.
The year 2021 presented some great achievements on product level. One that stands out is the use of 100 percent certified recycled gold in the iPhone 13 for the first time. Apple says that the supply chain for the recycled gold incorporated complete transparency and end-to-end traceability. Apple continued to expand the use of 100 percent recycled aluminium in the product enclosures. All iPad models have now joined Apple Watch Series 7 and Watch SE, MacBook Air, Mac mini, and the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro devices in the use of the recycled aluminium. Perhaps, next year the hardware of the iPhone 14 will be entirely made from recycled aluminium.
Overall, 45 percent of used rare earth metals in 2021 products was recycled. In March 2022, for example, in the Apple Studio Display and Mac Studio devices, Apple introduced 100 percent recycled zinc in the brass prongs of the power cord plug and AC inlet.8. Electronic devices are complex in their build and rich with rare earth metals, so Apple faces a big challenge to develop ways to source every single one of them ethically, if possible, to one day release an iPhone or an iPad built from only reused or recycled resources.
Product manufacturing remains the biggest contributor to Apple’s carbon emissions and that of individual products. Reported figures state that 70 percent of total CO2 was generated at manufacturing in 2021 (down from 71 percent in 2020), and the share of the carbon footprint by product use is 22 percent (up from 19 percent in 2020). While Apple is seeking opportunities to optimise production processes and cut the associated emissions, for example to reduce the use of fluorinated gases in the making of integrated circuit chips and display panels, the rise of 6 percent in emissions while products are in use is alarming. We put together a graph breaking down total lifetime CO2 per iPhone, and the rising trend creates distrust in Apple’s claims on product efficiency and likely sets the timeline to achieving product net zero further than 2030.
Image: Compare and Recycle
Apple has reported that its new product packaging contains only 4 percent of plastic and the goal to eliminate plastic by 2025 altogether does look achievable. The retail boxes for the iPhone 13 lineup were the first to avoid the use of plastic components. Clever design solutions like fiber-based pull-tabs in the iPhone 13 retail boxes replaced traditional plastic wrap and helped to save an estimated 600 metric tons of plastic. It is likely that in the coming years the ratio between the virgin and recycled fibre will grow in favour of recycled material.
Image: Compare and Recycle
We all remember the controversial move by Apple to remove the charging adapters in 2020 and in this report Apple has calculated that the removal of the adapter from in-box accessories resulted in avoiding 180,000 metric tons of CO2e. We have expressed our thoughts on the removal of the charger in our review of Apple’s 2020 report, but worth repeating that while 180,000 metric tons of carbon emissions Apple regards as avoided, individual chargers are still sold on Apple’s website and are required to be purchased separately from Apple or other retailers to be able to use the devices efficiently. Hence, these emissions were not avoided per se, but rather distributed among other parties and the impact of this decision by Apple for the sake of the planet is somewhat dubious.
The family of recycling robots is growing with the introduction of Taz - a shredder-like machine that separates magnets from audio components and recovers more rare earth elements. The problem with traditional shredders was that a significant proportion of magnets from rare earth materials were lost in the process, wasting valuable and scarce metals. Apple’s new robot aims to solve this by keeping materials intact to boost recovery rates.
Apple’s disassembly robot Daisy has been around for a few years and can now take apart in total 23 models of iPhone, any model between iPhone 5 to iPhone 12, when previously it was 15 models.
Apple notes that from just one metric ton of iPhone components disassembled by the recycling robots, the amount of gold and copper recovered is equivalent to mining 2,000 metric tons of rock. It’s not surprising that iPhones are roughly twice as rich in metals than those found in natural ore and it’s a welcoming move by Apple to licence patents on recycling machines to other companies for free.
Unbelievably, late last year Apple announced a Self Service Repair initiative in response to Right to Repair campaigns. The repair programme launched at the end of April 2022 in the US (Europe later in 2022) offering repair manuals, spare parts and tools to consumers.
At the moment only iPhone 12, iPhone 13 and iPhone SE (2022) lineups are available for Self Service Repair with repair types being:
It is unclear yet if Apple plans to expand the repairs to include rear panel or USB-C port replacements, but it would be a welcome addition as these are the parts that get used / damaged the most. Certain repairs will require system configurations to autorise the part after the repair which Apple says can be done remotely by calling or live chatting with Apple.
Apple mentioned that prices for the original parts and tools are the same as those available to autorised repairers. The return of replaced parts for recycling is encouraged with Apple offering significant store credits. For example, a battery repair bundle (battery, screw kits and adhesive) costs $70.99, returning the replaced battery for recycling will apply a $24.15 'discount'.
We believe that this programme, if carried out with indeed repairability in mind, combined with already long-lasting software updates and worldwide Trade In services, can be a great solution to prolonging the use and reuse of manufactured Apple products. With Apple’s buy-in, extending the use of devices can reach even more significant numbers than 12.2 million devices and accessories that were given a second life through refurbishment and diversion of more than 38,000 metric tons of e-waste in 2021 alone.
Achieving net zero as an individual is a difficult task, it’s even more challenging for a company the size of Apple to do so, but there’s clear progress in Apple’s efforts to carbon neutrality over the past ten years.
There’s still a long journey ahead, and we hope to see more products incorporating designed-to-last principles and expanding the use of secondary materials. Making repair more accessible for consumers is a big goal and we can’t wait for Apple to deliver on its promises. Apple is well placed to produce sustainable and environmentally conscious products and the time is running out.
Cover image: Apple
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