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10/05/2023

Apple Environmental Report 2023: Does Apple Really Care About the Environment?

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Yet again like clockwork Apple published their environmental report outlining the company's progress towards their 2030 goal of becoming carbon neutral. Apple make it clear that this goal is the driving force behind their environmental initiatives, policies and social projects. We read all the 120 pages of the report, and while Apple is setting new environmental targets, there are a few questions the iPhone maker chose not to address.

The report is rich in claims and achievements Apple is proud of, but there are a few essentials missing from their progress on the 2022 fiscal year and we decided to dig deeper to uncover the bad and the ugly when it comes to Apple’s environmental impact.

In this article:

Apple’s progress on reaching carbon neutrality by 2030

Within each annual report, Apple highlight their main achievements towards becoming carbon neutral by 2030. But what does carbon neutrality mean for Apple? In its essence, being carbon neutral means reducing carbon emissions created and removing those from the environment as this is what causes global warming and climate crisis. For Apple this process consists of reducing their corporate emissions which includes their offices, datacentres, shops, employee travel etc. On top of that, decrease the emissions created by their supply chain to manufacture, ship and distribute their products. Finally, design products that emit less carbon during their lifetime. Given the size of Apple's corporation, this isn't an easy task.

Since 2015, Apple have been on a journey to carve away at their overall net-emissions of 22.5 million metric tons in 2021. In fiscal year 2022, it has gone down to 20.3 million metric tons which is a positive reduction.

Since April 2020, Apple’s corporate operations have been carbon neutral due to Apple sourcing 100 percent renewable electricity for its facilities, implementing work-from-home policy to reduce employee commute and business travel. So, in terms of their corporate stance, Apple has actively put into place effective changes in order to regulate their CO2 emissions. When it comes to taking control over the CO2 output of their supply chains, Apple has been working on improving energy efficiency with energy tracking and using LED lighting. Although they have not achieved carbon neutrality yet, Apple reduced energy use of its facilities by 69.4 million kilowatt-hours. This resulted in avoiding 1.3 million metric tons of carbon from supply chains.

Now with that being said, Apple has put tremendous effort into both their corporate operations and supply chains, which leaves us with product carbon that frankly speaking does look like being neglected. Product design is arguably the most important piece in their business, yet they fail to create sustainably designed iPhones, iPads, macBooks.

Let's look at iPhones for example. We have to think about the amount of iPhones sold each year, the environmental impact of the production and how much of the phone is actually made out of recycled materials. However we look at it, individually or together with Apple's corporate and supply chain progress, no matter how fantastic the claims are about materials used in iPhones and plastic reduced from packaging, numbers don't lie. If only a small percentage of the iPhone is made of recycled aluminium or gold, in the grand scheme of things it completely defeats the objective - in this case, reaching carbon neutrality. All of a sudden, Apple minimising their carbon output by 20.3 million metric tons in 7 years, seems like a very ambitious goal, dare we say unreachable. Given that Apple takes year 2015 as a baseline with reported 38.4 million metric tons of CO2 and within the past 8 years the reduction achieved is at 18.1 million metric tons.

What’s new in Apple’s arsenal of environmental initiatives?

On the surface, it seems that Apple is good at recognising their environmental impact. For example, in their report they focus on smarter materials aiming to eliminate toxic material compositions and to reduce plastics in their packaging, going from 21 percent to only 4 percent plastic contained in packaging since 2015.

So how is Apple going to make their products more environmentally friendly? A new goal has been set to accelerate the transition to recycled materials in all devices by 2025 but they do not state whether the iPhone will ever be completely made of recycled materials. This would be an extremely difficult task, as electronic devices are complex and made up of rare earth materials. Recovering these from devices for future reuse is challenging and requires designs for recycling and innovative technologies and processes that are carbon neutral. If only a small percentage of an iPhone is made up of recycled material, then we must understand that the rest will continue to produce CO2 emissions within manufacturing and end of life recovery.

Apple have pledged to:

  • Include 100% recycled cobalt in Apple designed batteries

  • Magnets in all Apple devices to use entirely recycled earth elements by 2025

  • Apple designed circuit boards to use 100% recycled tin in soldering and gold in plating.

Whilst this sounds great on paper, we wonder how they are planning to get to 100% recycled materials in all products in such a short time frame, given that mobile phones alone require 75 out of 81 elements in the periodic table to work. Apple has reported that iPhone 13 lineup used 100% recycled gold in 2022. They have now built additional components with 100% recycled gold including “the wire of all cameras in the iPhone 14 lineup, and printed circuit boards of iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods Pro, MacBook Pro, Mac mini and HomePod.” But it’s only one material that took Apple a good few years to implement in their product designs.

Apple claims to be working on improving how they collect end-of-life products and develop recycling innovations so that others can use old devices as raw material sources for the future. Although Apple is taking steps in making their products more recyclable, these seem to be baby steps. Collecting only 12.1 million end-of-life devices when in that same year Apple sold hundreds of millions of devices, isn’t enough. From this year's report, it’s clear that the adaptations they have made in the newer models are only slight and “we’re finding new ways to access these valuable components within our devices” just isn’t going to cut it anymore. With the funding, popularity and resources Apple have at their fingertips, they should be able to carry out drastic changes in end-of-life product collections instead of reporting on it being a drop in the ocean.

The figure of 225 million iPhones sold in 2022 was sourced from Statista.

Breaking carbon emissions records

Year after year, there has been an increasing trend on how each new iPhone model has an even larger CO2 footprint. With every new model released, come higher CO2 emissions. Can you see where we’re going with this? If Apple cared about the environment would they make new iPhones that break their own lifetime carbon emission records? We hope the question that lingers at the back of your mind is, what is the carbon footprint of an iPhone? Take a look:

Yes, Apple has introduced recycled materials in iPhones and they ensure that there’s one durability feature to highlight at annual iPhone events (remember Ceramic Shield?), but what we can see is that these changes will not have a big enough impact due to the number of iPhones manufactured and sold every year. If Apple really wanted to cut down their product emissions, they would identify the main source of emissions in manufacturing processes to tackle instead of removing charging adapters for environmental reasons.

Don’t get us wrong, we appreciate the push to increase the longevity of an iPhone with the longest software support in the industry, but what we want to see more of are changes that are actually relevant to the areas in which their figures are climbing - production. The iPhone environmental impact is worsening and the majority of an iPhone’s carbon emissions are created during production:

“Behind every Apple product is a plan for the future” - Is there?

After digging into this year's Apple Environmental Report, we noticed no mention of one product and that is AirPods. In 2021, AirPods alone made an estimated $12.1 billion profit, that's more than Spotify, Twitter and Shopify’s revenue figures. Based on this, you would think they would have earned a spot in Apple’s collection of environmental reports, but unfortunately they did not and only Apple knows if they ever will. Our guess is as good as yours, but may it have something to do with the ugly truth about how they are made, which doesn’t match Apple’s overall “we care for the environment” vibe?

AirPods were designed to glue together an ecosystem of premium products for the iPhone, strategically removing the headphone jack to create yet another revenue stream for Apple. Despite the fact that AirPods are designed to feel effortless, wireless and ultimately less annoying, it seems that the only reason Apple users buy them is that there is no other choice! The real question is, why have Apple not reported on the carbon footprint of AirPods given their essence in how iPhones are consumed? AirPods become e-waste after just 18-months, when the irreplaceable lithium ion battery dies. At the moment, AirPods are a wasteful product and more often than not their environmental impact comes into question.

One of the main issues with AirPods, is that they cannot be repaired or easily recycled because they are glued together. This means that there is no safe way to disconnect the lithium-ion battery from the plastic hardware and if you try to simply dispose of them in your normal black bin bag, there is a huge risk of it setting alight. For such a small piece of tech, there is a huge amount of energy and resources used to produce something that cannot even be repaired. It’s clear why Apple have not included this data in their report, but what we want to know is, what are their plans on improving this rapidly growing issue or is it just a money making scheme?

AirPods have been designed with a particular lifespan which encourages customers to purchase newer models. Unfortunately, this is a common tactic within hundreds of companies and it has a huge impact on not only the environment, but also the consumer's wallet. Let’s use the original AirPods as an example; it was priced at £139 and since then, the AirPods Pro’s have climbed their way up to the £249 mark with the main difference being sound cancellation improvements and design. The AirPods Max do not differentiate much from the AirPods, both are made from similar materials. With that being said, this should make you wonder whether the AirPods Max are worth their steep £549 price mark.

“This is the idea that some of the world’s biggest companies have been selling us products either knowing full well that they will only last a couple of years, or having deliberately built a short lifespan into the item or its software.” - The Guardian

Final thoughts

As Apple gets closer to their net-zero deadline of 2030, it seems logical for them to throw all their forces at setting green records and not break CO2 records. It feels like Apple should be educating their customers on what goes into their products by emphasising how they can be easily recycled, so more products are reused and returned back into the system for material recovery.

Each year we can see that the progress made is almost minuscule in comparison to the size of their mammoth company and the truth is lost within their neatly put together reports that throw claims left and right which need to be deciphered. But there's one thing we can't fault Apple with - their ability to recognise their impact and the level of transparency into their operations. Apple environmental responsibility is crucial and we hope it's not too late to turn things around.

References: Apple, Environmental Progress Report 2023. Available here

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