Apple & the environment

Jonathan Stewart and David Price
24 May, 2012
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Apple’s iconic logo – a bitten apple – adorns many of the products desired most by consumers: Apple has become a fashion statement to many, but is this consumer society sustainable?

Apple’s success is well known: recent financial results confirm it with all-time record iPhone, iPad and Mac sales. Apple posted a quarterly revenue of US$46.33 billion and net profit of US$13.06 billion for the last 14 weeks of 2011; it sold 37 million iPhones, 15.4 million iPads, 5.2 million Macs and 15.4 million iPods over the period.

This is a vast number of products that had to be designed, manufactured and transported across the globe, with a resulting impact on the environment. The question is, does Apple acknowledge this?

In May 2007 the late Apple chairman Steve Jobs released a statement, ‘A Greener Apple’, which determined to move Apple to ‘become greener’. In the report Apple took a giant step: It began to communicate with its consumers, the media and the wider world. It documented its future plans and what it had already achieved, and accepted its environmental responsibilities as a global corporation.

Jobs thoughtfully concluded, “Today is the first time we have openly discussed our plans to become a greener Apple. It will not be the last.”

So has anything really changed since then?

In September 2009 Apple launched its new environmentally conscious webpage, an innovative, forward- thinking sign of an open Apple.

Apple has become proactive and displays a detailed map of the company’s environmental advances, dividing the 2010 total carbon footprint of 14.8 million tonnes into five specific stages of an Apple product’s life: Manufacturing, transportation, product use, recycling and Apple facilities.

The webpage highlights the impact of each area, the recent improvements and the specific goals Apple seeks to attain.

As you would expect, manufacturing consumes the largest percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, with 6.852 million tonnes, or 46 percent. Apple is addressing this with sizable reductions in carbon emissions with each new product.

Apple iMac.

An example is the 2011 Apple TV model, which has a 90 percent carbon emission reduction in comparison to the 2007 model. It isn’t alone.

“Although today’s 21.5in iMac is more powerful and has a much larger screen than the first-generation, 15in iMac, it is designed with 50 percent less material and generates 50 percent fewer emissions,” Apple says.

Transportation of products, from assembly to sales, makes up only six percent of emissions, and with reduced packaging enabling higher numbers of units per shipment, transportation has advanced in efficiency and in achieving a lower emissions total.

Apple includes the products’ environmental impact across their estimated lifetimes, which the company determines to be 6.6 million tonnes or 45 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions total. These calculations are based on four-year lifespans for Mac computers and three years of use for iPhones, iPads and iPods.

Apple has also reduced energy use by producing devices with batteries that last longer and require fewer charges. In fact, the company says that every product it produces not only meets the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Energy Star guidelines, but exceeds them.

The 2011 iPad 2, 2010 iPhone 4 and 2011 11in MacBook Air, for example, produce fewer emissions per hour of use than a 13-watt CFL light bulb.

The final one percent is allocated to recycling, an area in which Apple is excelling. Apple claims an approximate 90 percent recovery rate when its products are recycled – an astounding number, and one that would allow for very little landfill waste.

Hewlett-Packard recycled 16 percent of its products in 2009, according to Greenpeace. In comparison, that year Apple recycled 66.4 percent of its products manufactured seven years before – Apple assumes that products have a seven-year period before they are thrown away – and aims to recycle over 70 percent of Apple devices between 2010 and 2015, a goal it achieved in 2010.

Apple Australia director of corporate communications Fiona Martin has declined to comment on the company’s plans, but says that “Apple finds efficient ways to reuse and recycle electronic equipment, including iPhone, iPad, Mac or PC computers and displays”.

Recycling, she says, “is what happens at the end of the product’s life that contributes to its environmental footprint. However, the way our products are manufactured, used and recycled represents the largest percent of Apple’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why we design them for better environmental performance.”

Martin has directed all other questions to Apple’s environmental webpage.

Recycling and energy-efficient devices are a positive step, but Apple’s 14.8 million tonnes of greenhouse
gas emissions produced annually are, according to the EPA, equivalent to the carbon emissions from 6.28 billion litres of petrol, the electrical use of 1.85 million homes and the output of 3.5 coal-fired power plants.

The total annual emissions would require 379.5 million tree seedlings grown for 10 years or about 585sq km of developed forest to offset, a figure that will continue to grow as Apple continues to produce greater product volumes worldwide.

Detail from Apple’s environment web page shows how, by reducing iPhone packaging by 42 percent from 2007 to 2011, the company ships 80 percent more boxes in each airline shipping container. That saves one 747 flight for every 371,250 units.


This can be rectified, and Apple has taken steps to offset these numbers – a notable example being the reduction of energy use in its facilities.

Retail stores, corporate offices, distribution hubs and data centres account for two percent of the emission total, but this has been reduced by 21,500 tonnes through the use of wind and biogas renewable energy at Apple facilities in Austin and Sacramento in the US, and Cork in Ireland.

While 21,500 tonnes does not seem noteworthy in comparison to the total emissions – 0.15 percent – it is equivalent to 50,000 barrels of oil or the electricity use of 2681 homes annually.

While these schemes are encouraging, Apple has slid from 22nd on the EPA’s Fortune 500 Partners List – a reflection of leading organisations’ green power purchases – in November 2006 to 43rd in January 2012. Rival technology-based companies such as Intel, which has been first since 2008, and Dell, which was third in 2009 and fifth in 2010, have been consistent in environmentally friendly energy creation.

Intel, according to the EPA, “purchases more than 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours a year of renewable energy certificates, generated from wind, solar, geothermal, low impact hydro and biomass sources”. Intel sources 88 percent of its total electricity use from green power, a situation that many say Apple should be copying.

Greenpeace International IT analyst Casey Harrell is critical of Apple’s iCloud services, saying that as “companies invest in more ‘cloud’ services they need to rely upon more large data-center investments”.

“In Apple’s case, as they build out their cloud, they are connecting their massive data farms to dirty energy,” Harrell says. “So when you connect to iCloud, this is being powered primarily by coal.”

Greenpeace has, however, praised Apple’s “sustainable operations” for its e-waste policies and product energy efficiency.

In a report on the Greenpeace website, 15 electronic companies are ranked depending on a variety of environmental categories. Last year Greenpeace moved Apple up five places, from ninth to fourth, with a score of 4.6/10.

The Greenpeace report highlights Apple’s free recycling scheme in 95 percent of the countries where Apple products are available, and Apple’s recycling of iPods and mobile phones – from all brands. Apple stores in the US offer gift cards to those who return reusable products.

While Apple is outspoken in terms of its recycling policy, Apple does not set carbon emission goals, which is a target of criticism by Greenpeace.

The responsibility isn’t solely Apple’s, Harrell says. The consumer public has to shoulder some of the blame; it is the consumer societies who update their phones, computers and accessories every few years and create the market demand for Apple products to be produced en masse.

“People should first and foremost not buy new gadgets they don’t need; they can make sure things like power settings are set to minimise energy use; and they should buy the most energy efficient products on the market (Apple’s computers fit that bill),” he says. “These will take a small bite out of a potential carbon footprint.”

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