Apple Promises to Be Carbon Neutral by 2030

The company will be carbon neutral across its entire supply chain.

Lineup for the latest at the apple store in Beijing
Lineup for the latest at the apple store in Beijing.

 Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Lisa Jackson, Apple's VP of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, recently dropped the company's latest Environmental Progress Report. It's easy to be skeptical about such things, especially when you see people lining up in the middle of a pandemic, desperate to buy the latest phone. Or when you have read a dozen of these things promising to plant trees or install solar panels (though they do that too). But this one is different. They are making some serious commitments that go way beyond their electricity supplies; that actually go to the heart of sustainability. Jackson writes in the introduction:

By 2030, we’re committing to total carbon neutrality. We are already carbon neutral for our corporate emissions, including corporate travel—resulting from our use of 100 percent renewable electricity for our facilities and investing in high-quality projects that protect and restore forests, wetlands, and grasslands. And we’re well on our way in our supply chain. But we’re going further to cover our entire, end-to-end footprint. All the way down to the shipping that moves our products around the world, and the energy used to power our customers’ devices. 

But wait, there's more.

This initiative will support not just our carbon goal but all of our ongoing environmental ambitions. Like our visionary goal of closing the loop on our supply chain and to one day no longer mine materials from the earth. Many of our products now contain higher percentages of recycled material than ever before, but we won’t be content until that number hits 100 percent for all of our devices.  

One of the biggest complaints that environmental critics have had over the years is the dependence on "conflict minerals" like tungsten, cobalt, and tantalum (coltran). Apple is now mining for them in old phones, and some parts, like the taptic engine, are made with 100 percent recycled rare earth elements.

Scope of emissions
Scope of emissions. Apple 

The really critical component of this report is the way they talk about their carbon emissions, which includes the full life cycle.

  • Scope 1 emissions are where most companies start, by getting off fossil fuels.
  • Scope 2 is when you see all the impressive solar panels and wind turbines that power a company's offices or the factories that they actually operate, and Apple has certainly done a good job there; all of their buildings, stores, and even their data centers are running on 100% renewables.
  • Scope 3 is where the action is. Apple subcontracts most of its manufacturing, and it all adds up to a whopping 76% of its carbon footprint. So Apple has to look at what's going on all over the world, from what materials they use to how they are put together, in every factory.

The Aluminum Story

Reprocessing aluminum
Reprocessing aluminum.  Apple

I find their aluminum story particularly interesting, and we have been following it for years. In 2015, aluminum accounted for a full 27% of the company's manufacturing footprint. Here, they have followed a couple of steps that could be a how-to guide:

Use Less of It

Apple has always been obsessed with their computers being thinner and lighter, one reason they designed that lousy butterfly keyboard in the mac computers; the new Macbooks with improved keyboards are actually a bit thicker. But the principle was correct, and they also apply it to their processes. (My emphasis on the most important, and universal point:) "Material efficiency avoids energy-intensive processing and transportation of raw materials. While manufacturing scrap does typically get directed toward the recycled materials market, we believe it is still best not to create the waste in the first place."

Use More Recycled Material

This is a touchy and complicated one. Apple says "We reengineered our manufacturing process to reincorporate aluminum scrap. We then went even further to source 100 percent recycled aluminum, utilizing post-industrial aluminum waste generated during the manufacturing of Apple products." But post-industrial waste is just another way of saying the far more common pre-consumer waste, the swarf, or stuff left over after machining out the part. I have noted before that having lots of pre-consumer waste probably means that you are doing wrong; you want to have as little of it as possible. Some don't even consider using it to be recycling. Marcel van Enckevort points to the definition of post-industrial (aka pre-consumer) waste according to the international standard (ISO 14021:1999):

Pre-consumer material
Material diverted from the waste stream during a manufacturing process. Excluded is reutilization of materials such as rework, regrind or scrap generated in a process and capable of being reclaimed within the same process that generated it.

Reutilizing regrind and scrap is what they are doing here. Obviously, sweeping up the swarf and using it is a good thing; you need a lot less aluminum. Using it has reduced the carbon footprint of the Macbook Air I am typing this on by half. But it is not recycling as much as it is smart, efficient use of materials in their manufacturing. It just sounds sexier.

Using Low-Carbon Aluminum

Apple started with "prioritizing the use of aluminum that was smelted using hydroelectricity rather than fossil fuels like coal." That means sourcing aluminum smelted in Canada, Norway, and Iceland and avoiding aluminum from the USA and China.

Apple has gone even further than that, investing in Elysis, a new process for making aluminum that doesn't have a carbon anode in the pot where they zap alumina (aluminum oxide) with high voltage to separate the aluminum from the oxygen, which then combines with the carbon from the anode to make CO and CO2. We agree with Apple that this is a revolutionary step, but they go too far by calling it a "direct carbon-free aluminum smelting process." It's still made from alumina, which is extracted from bauxite in a messy, destructive, and carbon-intensive process. For it to be truly green, aluminum has to be 100% post-consumer recycled, and Apple can't do that, it needs specific high-grade alloys.

But I can quibble all day about whether the terms are correct or whether the aluminum is carbon-free, the proof is in the pudding and Apple claims that "As a result of these initiatives, we’ve seen a 63 percent decrease in Apple’s aluminum carbon footprint compared to 2015."

Supplier Energy Efficiency

Wind farm being built in China
Wind farm being built in China.  Apple

In addition to driving down the footprint of the design of their machines, Apple is also working on its suppliers, which can be a challenge in coal-fired countries like China. Nonetheless,

As of June 2020, 71 manufacturing partners in 17 different countries have committed to 100 percent renewable energy for Apple production. And Apple itself has continued to invest directly in renewable energy projects.

The intent is to "to transition our entire manufacturing supply chain to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030."

The Full Lifecycle

Circular supply chain
Circular Supply chain. Apple 

It's actually pretty hard for me to fault Apple here, they really are going for the full lifecycle analysis and a truly circular model. They even account for the power used by its customers; they can't control how much I look at my iPad or whether my power is renewable, but they can make it as efficient as possible and although they are not perfect, they can offset their estimate of consumers' power use with conservation projects. It's all very impressive.

But What About the Marketing Model?

Lineup in Toronto for new iPhone
Lineup in Toronto for new iPhone.  George Pimentel/WireImage via Getty Images

The biggest complaint everyone seems to have with Apple is that everyone wants the latest thing. It's almost universal; when I asked aluminum expert Carl Zimring what he thought of the new Macbook Air he tweeted back:

After a rave review of the environmental plan in Bloomberg Green, Akshat Rathi complained:

Though Apple’s climate plan is impressive, there’s still something missing. The company is sticking to its main business model of selling ever greater numbers of devices and providing money-making services on top. The whole consumer-tech industry has been widely criticized for its “planned obsolescence” strategy, which makes users want a new device every few years.

I am not so sure, I think that Rathi was just looking for something critical to say because nobody wants to look like a sycophantic Apple fanboi. I have already been critical of Apple and its discussion of aluminum, so I want to dig in here a bit.

In his book "The Waste Makers" Vance Packard (who really popularized the term "planned obsolescence") defined three kinds of obsolescence:

Obsolescence of function. In this situation an existing product becomes outmoded when a product is introduced that performs the function better.
Obsolescence of quality. Here, when it is planned, a product breaks down or wears out at a given time, usually not too distant.
Obsolescence of desirability. In this situation a product that is still sound in terms of quality or performance becomes “worn out” in our minds because a styling or other change makes it seem less desirable.

I am not sure about all those other people lining up in front of the stores in Beijing and Toronto, but I bought my new iPhone 11 Pro for the wide-angle lens that lets me finally do good architectural shots from my phone. It is functionally far better for what I need.

Here is a company where the environmental policies are getting constantly better and are truly serious. It makes products that generally get better functionally (keyboards excluded) and are generally good quality. If that lets them sell ever greater numbers of devices and services, that's fine by me.