Apple’s New iPhone Is Far From Green

Though the company is making environmental advances, manufacturing new phones is still destructive

The new iPhone 12 Pro. Credit: Apple

Apple’s new product lineup — four different models of iPhone 12, between the normal, “Pro,” and “Mini” variants — are rolling out starting this week. When they were announced during a customary press event, the company made sure to spotlight their environmental bona fides.

In a sleek two and a half minute overview, Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of environment, policy, and social initiatives, explained that the iPhone 12 uses more recyclable materials than past models, including 100% recycled rare earth metals in its magnets. The phone’s carbon footprint is a bit lighter, too, thanks to Apple’s ongoing effort to decarbonize its supply chain. And in a move that feels long overdue, Apple won’t be giving you a new wall charger or Lightning headphone set with the iPhone 12, sparing overstuffed desk drawers around the world while reducing an obvious source of waste.

It all sounds very impressive. And Apple does deserve kudos for the work it’s doing to clean up its supply chain and recycle more. But by feeding the public a steady drip of environmental wins, Apple continues to shift our focus away from the planetary problem epitomized by each successive product launch: The company’s goal is to sell us more stuff all the time.

None of Apple’s recent environmental advances interfere with that goal — in fact, its concerted effort to market the iPhone 12 as a green choice could serve to advance it, if this marketing makes Apple’s increasingly eco-conscious consumer base comfortable with upgrading sooner than they might have. The paradox, of course, is that manufacturing new devices is inherently destructive — encouraging consumers to keep older devices by reducing the frequency of new product launches and making its devices easier for everyone to repair would be the greenest choice Apple could make.

Still, the company has staked out some ambitious goals around climate change and resource use. It has committed to being completely carbon neutral by 2030, a goal in line with what climate scientists say is needed to keep the planet’s temperature within safe boundaries. And while it hasn’t announced a target date, Apple also says it hopes to stop mining the earth one day by incorporating ever more recycled resources into its products.

Apple is continuing to make progress on both of these fronts, as Jackson emphasized in her iPhone 12 presentation. In April, the company became carbon neutral for its corporate operations. That means that not only are all of Apple’s data centers, offices, and stores running on renewable energy, but it’s offsetting the emissions associated with employee commuting and travel. Apple has also embarked on the more challenging task of helping its suppliers to shift off fossil fuels, a critical piece of the puzzle since the bulk of the emissions associated with its products — 83% in the case of the iPhone 12 — occur during production. Perhaps most intriguingly, Apple said in its most recent environmental report that it is now sourcing some of its aluminum from a firm that developed a new, low carbon smelting process. If that process can be scaled up, it would amount to a breakthrough for an industry notorious for its hefty carbon footprint. Elsewhere, Apple is prioritizing aluminum from suppliers who smelt the metal using hydropower rather than coal.

“Apple has shown leadership by helping its suppliers purchase renewable energy for their own factories’ operations… and engaging with other governments to offer more voluntary renewable energy offerings to commercial and industrial energy,” Verena Radulovic, director of corporate engagement at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, tells Debugger.

If companies like Apple continue to expand their consumer base and encourage us to upgrade faster than we need to, this staggering pile of toxic garbage is likely to keep growing.

Apple has also continued developing new streams of recycled materials that can be incorporated into its devices, both by seeking out manufacturing scrap in its supply chain and using its iPhone disassembly robots to recover end-of-life components. This year, the company has spotlighted its efforts to incorporate recycled rare earths into devices, an important step toward reducing its mining footprint given the outsized environmental and human toll of rare earth mining. According to Apple’s 2020 environmental report, the company found a recycler collecting rare earth magnet manufacturing scrap, and it began harvesting the scrap to make new magnets. It also claims to be working on recycling rare earths from end of life devices, which will likely require new scientific breakthroughs to accomplish.

All of this is laudable in a general sense, although the company hasn’t been super specific about most of it: It’s unclear just how many iPhones Apple’s robots have recycled to date, for example, or how much low carbon aluminum Apple is currently integrating into new devices. (When we asked, Apple simply pointed us toward public information in its 2020 environmental report, which doesn’t answer either question.)

But the most important question is whether Apple’s efforts are pushing it, and the broader consumer tech industry it has long led through innovation, in a more sustainable direction overall. And that’s much harder to answer.

While Apple reduced its carbon footprint 35% between 2015 and 2019, global electronic waste production rose 21% over the same period. If companies like Apple continue to expand their consumer base and encourage us to upgrade faster than we need to, this staggering pile of toxic garbage is likely to keep growing. Of course, as we consume more, we also need to mine more. While Apple is showing that demand for virgin mined materials can be offset somewhat by recycling, it’s hard to envision a way in which it can achieve its goal of eliminating mining entirely while selling more and more devices over time — especially when so many of those devices are winding up in a shredder or a landfill.

“Eventually, a ceiling is going to be reached where even if you have a 100% efficient recovery process, there will be insufficient materials that are recovered that are above ground — that is, in the devices — to be incorporated into the new number of devices you need to grow,” Josh Lepawsky, a geographer at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies the environmental impact of consumer electronics, tells Debugger. “That’s kind of just an unresolvable paradox of the whole idea of a circular economy if it’s a growth based one. It’s just physics.”

“Recycling a charger is a piece of cake. On the flip side, when an iPhone, iPad, or MacBook comes in, it’s a very different story.”

Apple’s decision to forgo chargers and headphones with the iPhone 12 could be seen as a baby step toward stemming the tidal wave of electronic junk it contributes to. But at the same time, the move also illustrates the company’s preference for incremental steps that don’t rock the boat over bold, transformative action. As Amanda LaGrange, CEO of the St. Paul e-waste recycler Tech Dump notes, iPhone chargers and headphones were already some of the easiest Apple devices for recyclers to process.

“Recycling a charger is a piece of cake,” LaGrange says, noting that the copper in the cord can be reclaimed easily, as can the plastic from the block. “On the flip side, when an iPhone, iPad, or MacBook comes in, it’s a very different story. There’s typically a lot of glue, there’s proprietary screws… There’s an incredible amount of complexity and difficulty to properly recycle, or ideally repair, refurbish, and resell it.”

The task of refurbishing and reselling Apple devices — key to lessening their environmental impact — is made even more difficult by the company’s own policies. As Motherboard reported in 2017, Apple maintains “must shred” agreements with many of its recycling partners, forcing them to destroy devices that might be repairable or, at least, have salvageable components. Just last month, The Logic reported that Apple had filed a lawsuit against a Canadian recycling partner for reselling 100,000 still usable iPhones and iPads instead of destroying them as it was contracted to do. Apple may have been within its legal rights to bring charges against the company, but consumers also have a right to wonder why so many apparently fixable phones were destined to be destroyed in the first place.

“We refurbish as many devices as we safely can each year, including over 10 million in the last year alone,” Apple told Debugger in an emailed statement in response to questions on the lawsuit and how it decides whether to refurbish or destroy a device. “After rigorous testing, some products cannot be refurbished to meet Apple’s industry-leading safety and quality standards and are either recycled by Apple or sent to specialist recyclers, where we work closely with our partners to recover key materials that can be used in future products.”

“This is their right as the equipment owner, but to seek the mantle of sustainability at the same time is deeply deceptive,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, says, referring to Apple’s mandate that recyclers destroy devices. “By their own stats, the total environmental costs of producing a phone are close to 80% of the lifetime cost. Keeping equipment in use as long as possible amortizes those costs more sustainably.”

If Apple were to take serious steps to facilitate repair and reuse, whether by redesigning its devices for disassembly, making original parts and schematics available to consumers, allowing its repair partners to fix older devices, or supporting right-to-repair laws instead of actively fighting them, it would have a much bigger environmental impact than holding the chargers on the next iPhone. LaGrange suggests one other step Apple could take to demonstrate it was serious about sustainability, although she admits that “shareholders would go bananas.”

“What if they said, you know what, it’s 2020, we’ve been developing a new phone, but at the end of the day, we know the importance of acting right now on climate chaos, and we’re just going to hold off,” LaGrange said. “Because people don’t actually need a brand new iPhone from Apple right now.”

scientist-turned-writer

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