This week, Apple announced a swathe of new updated products, including a new iPhone 13  and iPhone 13 Pro (with superior cameras and improved battery life); an updated Apple Watch (faster charging, larger face, more durable) and a new iPad and iPad Mini (superfast 5G, a new camera, a bionic chip for powerful processing and more storage). 

But at what cost, environmentally? Along with the release of the products, Apple made some announcements about its current and future sustainability practices. Notably, the big takeaway is the pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030.

It’s a high-profile statement from a consumer electronics company; up until now, the most prominent promises have come from the auto industry. Among others, BMW has an aggressive strategy to lower carbon emissions, while Polestar (which produces far fewer vehicles) has also pledged carbon neutrality by 2030. In contrast, a global giant like Hyundai, which makes over 6.5m vehicles a year, reckons it needs until 2045 to make the transition.

But how exactly will Apple achieve its carbon neutral status? The path to success is of course multi-pronged and complex. 

Decarbonising the supply chain

Firstly, by decarbonising its supply chain by using renewable energy. Apple’s global corporate operations (stores, offices, data centres) have run on 100% renewable energy since 2018, but it’s now extending this throughout the business, as well as outside of its own jurisdiction: the company has done a handshake with 110 of its suppliers, demanding they use renewable energy for any Apple based manufacturing - and happily, some of those suppliers have gone a step further, fully switching to renewable energy across their businesses.

Furthermore, to sequester those carbon emissions which, for the time being, remain unavoidable, Apple is working with Conservation International and Goldman Sachs to create a $200 million Restore Fund, to invest in conservation initiatives while generating financial return (initiatives include restoring degraded savannah land in Kenya and innovating with Columbia’s  coastal mangroves.) 

Apple iPad Mini
Apple iPad Mini

Reducing consumption 

Secondly, by reducing consumption. This is manifold, and will likely point to a  reduction in units sold per customer (although the tech giant would likely look to recruit enough new customers to make up for any per head slowdown). Improving the durability and lifespan of items lessens the need for further production. Another facet of giving products a longer or second life is refurbing old devices: in 2020, Apple sent 10.4 million devices to be overhauled for new users. Next is reducing excess packaging. First to go is the plastic wrapping around iPhone boxes which will eliminate 600 metric tonnes of plastic over the product’s life cycle.

Recycled and renewable sources

Thirdly, the brand is moving towards using only recycled and renewable sources for the 14 key materials - including tin, aluminium, cobalt, rare earth elements and more - that make up 90% of Apple products, although some are already made from 100% renewable or recyclable materials, such as the iPhone Watch case which uses 100% recycled aluminum (you can check your device’s environmental report card on Apple’s environmental page.

While well-intentioned, using materials labelled as ‘renewable’ comes with its own complex issues, as explained by Greta Thunberg in a recent instagram post. For example, often the materials  may be renewable but they are not being renewed at the same pace as their consumption. But Apple is committed to replenishing at the rate of usage, pointing to the example of its cardboard coming from responsibly managed forests that meet this requirement. The new iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro are made from 100% recycled tin, and recycled, strengthened plastic water bottles are used to make the antenna. The new Apple Watch proudly sports a 100% recycled aluminium case. 

Apple’s robot Daisy retrieves end of life consumer materials for recycling
Apple’s robot Daisy retrieves end of life consumer materials for recycling

End-of-life recyclable materials 

Fourthly, by retrieving end-of-life consumer recyclable materials, which is made possible in part thanks to Daisy, Apple’s proprietary robot (and her robot compatriot, Dave) who disassembles over 1.2 million iPhones every year. Daisy is particularly efficient at sorting raw materials and retrieving small elements such as batteries which can otherwise be lost in the maelstrom of shredded materials.

Buy back schemes

And finally, buy back schemes are becoming increasingly popular for brands, from H&M to Ikea - the latter of which is now allowing customers to get a valuation online for their old  furniture before trading in. Apple encourages customers to “turn the device you have  into the one you want” giving credit for eligible devices, or recycling ones that don’t qualify.

To learn more about Apple’s steps towards its 2030 carbon neutral promise, you can read its Environmental Progress Report here.  §