Apple likes to say it’s on the cutting edge of the fight against climate change. Over the past two weeks, the company has boasted about the $848 million solar farm it’s building to power its new headquarters in Silicon Valley and two new European data centers that will be its “lowest impact” yet.
But projects like these barely scratch the surface of Apple’s impact on the environment. Only 2 percent of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions have anything to do with facilities like its headquarters and data centers, according to the company’s 2014 report on its climate change efforts. The majority of those emissions — 70 percent, according to the report — result from its manufacturing of phones, tablets and computers. That manufacturing largely occurs in China where coal is the primary means of generating power.
It would be easy for Apple to meet its own rhetoric by building gadgets in less wasteful ways. Here are three steps that could make a big difference.
• Power factories with renewable energy: Apple relies on “manufacturing partners” like Foxconn to make its products, rather than making them in factories it owns. But Apple often funds the construction of its partners’ factories, so it has sway in how they’re built. Currently, Apple says it’s aiming to “power all Apple corporate offices, retail stores, and data centers entirely with energy from renewable sources.” There’s no reason Apple’s manufacturing partners shouldn’t be part of that goal, too. (Among other major manufacturers, Boeing and GM already have factories powered by renewables.)
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple may fund a new Japanese factory for Japan Display, a manufacturer of screens. No mention was made of how the factory would be powered, but Apple could easily insist that it tap into Japan’s excess supply of solar energy. Likewise, Apple should push its Chinese partners to take advantage of their country’s renewable energy boom.
• Let phones be fixed: Like other electronics manufacturers, Apple has a history of using copyright law to keep its service manuals off the Internet and out of the hands of independent repair shops and individual customers. Apple prefers to be the only one who can fix its devices — and it typically charges a premium price to do so, well beyond what’s available from independent repair shops. For example, an Apple certified iPhone battery replacement costs $79 and requires you to hand over your phone to the company for three to five days. The only other option the company gives is to trade in that depleted phone for a new iPhone that doesn’t cost much more.
This policy nudges customers toward buying new products rather than extending the life of their old ones. That might help Apple’s bottom line, but it results in more carbon emissions, and more waste.
This problem could be fixed — Apple just needs to give its customers a guide to fixing its phones. In fact, Apple’s customers are well ahead of the company in this respect. Crowdsourced, copyright-free manuals are common online, and one company — iFixit — has made a thriving business out of developing its own free repair manuals for products ranging from iPhones to Patagonia jackets, and selling the tools and parts to do the repair. Patagonia partnered with iFixit on repair guides in part because it believed that consumers like buying from companies that are committed to making long-lasting products. Apple could benefit from a similar shift.
• Do real recycling: As anyone who has ever shopped at an Apple store or its website knows, the company is keen to collect your gadgets for recycling. But collecting for recycling, and actually recycling, are two different things — and Apple, like most electronics manufacturers who do the former, don’t really like talking about the latter.
The problem is that complex gadgets like phones are difficult to disassemble into their individual components. (Ideally, the components could be reused directly or smelted.) Apple’s most recent products, which are super-thin and sealed tightly with glues and proprietary screws, are especially complicated. As a result, most mobile gadgets that are recycled in the United States (not just Apple’s) are run through giant shredders, after which magnets and other machines recover some of the metal. The rest — often the bulk — is usually incinerated or landfilled.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For almost a decade, product designers and companies have been developing designs for easy-to-recycle gadgets. The principles are simple: use screws instead of glues, label every part for easy sorting, and use easy to disassemble designs, among others.
Last year, a U.S. recycling trade group recognized Dell for using these guidelines in some of its products. If Apple followed Dell’s lead, it wouldn’t only reduce the carbon emissions associated with its recycling efforts (around 1.5 percent of Apple’s total carbon footprint), it would help to prolong the life span of Apple products (because they would be easier to repair), while reducing emissions associated with the purchase of new products.
For a company that prides itself on cutting-edge design, the irony is that Apple has failed to take the lead on making products that are easily recyclable and repairable (and still attractive). It’s a doable task — surely easier than packing a smartphone’s computing power into a watch. But that would require that Apple stop talking up its commitment to the environment, and begin doing the things that would make the biggest difference for it.
Adam Minter is based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture and business and junk.