Full disclosure up front: I am a fanboi from my MacBook Pro to my Apple Watch. And I have admired the work of Lisa Jackson as their Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives. They are asking all the right questions in their Environmental Responsibility Report (PDF here)
- Can we power a global business with the sun, wind, and water?
- Can we get 100 percent of our supply chain to move to 100 percent renewable energy?
- Can we one day stop mining the earth altogether?
- Can we use only 100 percent recycled and responsibly sourced paper in our packaging?
- Can we improve on the world’s best materials?
But are they coming up with the right answers? Almost right from the start, with Apple Park, there are problems.
Apple Parking, not Apple Park
Our new corporate campus, Apple Park, is on track to be the largest LEED Platinum–certified building in North America. Over 80 percent of the new campus is open space with more than 9000 drought-tolerant trees. And, of course, it’s powered by 100 percent renewable energy.
They go on to call it the greenest corporate headquarters on the planet, which it absolutely is not, because as we keep noting, what matters is not what you build, it's where you build it. The building has 10,500 parking spots; It should be called Apple Parking, not Apple Park. Apple doesn’t mention this, but does say:
We also offer our U.S. employees a transit subsidy of up to $100 per month, and at our Cupertino and surrounding Santa Clara Valley campus, we offer free coach buses to commute to and from our corporate offices. In fiscal year 2016, use of these coach buses increased by 4 percent. When Apple Park opens, we will add 700 new electric vehicle charging ports, over 1000 new campus bicycles, and a dedicated transit center.
700 out of 10,500 is not much. And really, they should have built the thing where people can actually live instead of having to bus them.
They have made remarkable progress in reducing the energy consumed by their products; they use 70 percent less power than they did a decade ago. This probably has as much to do with Intel and it's chip designs as anything else, but no doubt still needed a big push from its customers like Apple. I look forward to my next computer not sounding like a vacuum cleaner when a lot of applications are running.
A closed-loop supply chain
Traditional supply chains are linear. Materials are mined, manufactured as products, and often end up in landfills after use. Then the process starts over and more materials are extracted from the earth for new products. We believe our goal should be a closed-loop supply chain, where products are built using only renewable resources or recycled material.
Apple plans to focus on recycling 44 elements found in its products. Yet while some -- aluminum, for example -- are already recycled commercially, many others never will be. For example, according to Apple, an iPhone 6 contains .01 ounces worth of rare earth elements (17 chemical elements essential to today's technology) in components that include the handset's speakers and touchscreen display. That's a trifling volume that can't possibly be extracted and separated in a commercially viable manner using current technology. (Apple admits that its goal is aspirational at the moment.)
Apple is making great progress with aluminum. It cannot use conventional recycled aluminum because Apple’s is very high grade, a particular alloy, but it can recycle its own phones and computers.
Today, the only way to keep aluminum at this level of quality is to keep a clean material stream—not to mix it with existing scrap aluminum, which is what typically happens at recycling facilities. Our challenge is to recover the aluminum from our products without degrading its quality.
When it buys virgin aluminum, it specifies that it be made with hydroelectric power, like they do in Iceland and Quebec. However the bauxite still has to be mined, and it is still a very messy process. In his wonderful book Aluminum Upcycled, Carl Zimring concludes:
As designers create attractive goods from aluminum, bauxite mines across the planet intensify their extraction of ore at lasting cost to the people, plants, animals, air, land and water of the local areas. Upcycling, absent a cap on primary material extraction, does not close industrial loops so much as it fuels environmental exploitation.Zimring says we have to simply use less and to make stuff last longer, to repair and repurpose, to reduce demand. Apple is certainly good with that; I am writing this on a 2012 vintage MacBook, which has lasted longer than any other computer I ever owned since my first Commodore 64.
But Apple most definitely does not make it easy to repair their computers, and while they are experimenting with robots that can take iphones apart, according to Jason Koebler in Motherboard, Apple forces recyclers to shred all iPhones and MacBooks. Apple insists: "All of the equipment collected for recycling is manual and mechanically disassembled and shredded. The resulting fractions are sorted into plastics, metals, and glass and sold as stock feed in the manufacturing process."
At TreeHugger we have always tried to make the point that recycling is way down the list after repairing and reusing. But Apple doesn’t agree.
Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, notes that recycling "should be a last option" because unrecyclable rare earth metals are completely lost and melted down commodities are less valuable and of generally of a lower quality than freshly mined ones. Repair and reuse are much better ways to extend the value of the original mined materials.
Koebler describes how he visited one recycler and “watched workers crowbar and crack open recent-model MacBook Pro Retinas—worth hundreds of dollars even when they're completely broken—to be scrapped into their base materials.”
Apple has started a buyback program (I sold them back my last iPhone) but smarter consumers than me can get a lot more money on eBay or Craigslist.
Water and trees
Apple’s water use keeps going up; “In fiscal year 2016, Apple used 630 million gallons of water, up 10 percent from the previous year. This increase was driven primarily by growth at our data centers, both from increased construction and cooling needs.” But they keep building data centres in hot climates, places like Reno, Nevada and Mesa, Arizona.
Their use of virgin wood fiber is going down, as they reduce packaging and use more recycled materials.
Here they have done great work, eliminating PVC, Phthalates, Brominated flame retardants, all of which are perfectly legal in the United States. They have also designed out the need for beryllium, mercury, lead and arsenic.
The report ends with pages and pages of data on their footprint; the reductions in electricity use and natural gas saved are extraordinary.
It is hard not to be really impressed with what Apple has done with their three priorities:
- Reduce our impact on climate change by using renewable energy sources and driving energy efficiency in our products and facilities.
- Conserve precious resources so we all can thrive.
- Pioneer the use of safer materials in our products and processes
There is this willful blindness on other issues. The pretending that Apple Park is the world’s greenest office building. There is the continuing obsession with making it harder and harder to fix, to even open their phones and computers.
But if only every company was this serious, and this green.