Apple’s environmentalist bragging misleads the public

Apple has published a Paper and Packaging Strategy whitepaper in which it brags about eliminating a few grams of paper and plastic from iPhone product packaging and announces technological innovations in eliminating plastic and replacing it with robust wood-derived packaging.  While Apple should be commended for their leadership in this space, Apple’s environmentalist messaging is nevertheless dishonest both in regard to Apple’s overall priorities and many of their specific claims.

Missing the forest for the trees

While Apple brags about eliminating a few grams of paper from its product packaging, it often forces consumers to throw devices in the dumpster prematurely by making them very difficult to repair or upgrade.  These computers and phones are made from precious and rare materials that cost much more than cardboard to procure, not only in terms of raw material cost but also the environmental impact of manufacturing and the human labor involved in processing all the components into a finished product.   Apple chooses to build its products in a way that makes upgrading them impossible, even though it could easily, and in fact used to be far more accommodating to customers who prefer to upgrade their electronics rather than replace them wholesale.

Apple’s shift toward non-upgradable, non-maintainable products

Let’s take my own Apple product history as an example:

My first Apple purchase was a 2008 Unibody MacBook.  Over the next five years, I upgraded the memory from 2GB to 6GB, and replaced the slow spinning hard drive with a solid-state drive.  I replaced the battery (3x), the power adapter (3x), the speakers, and the DVD drive.   In late 2013, I replaced my aging MacBook with a new Retina MacBook Pro.  It has non-upgradable hard drive and memory that is soldered to the mainboard, the battery is firmly glued in place, the display assembly is bonded into a single unit, and proprietary pentalobe screws discourage me from opening it at all.  I replaced that computer in 2016, only three years later because I had filled up the hard drive and decided to upgrade to a new computer.   My new, maxed-out MacBook Pro with Touch Bar cost just about $3000.

Of course, I don’t really need a new $3000 computer.  I could have gotten along just fine with something much cheaper.  Nevertheless, that $3000 represents a significant investment in raw materials, energy, human labor, and of course human ingenuity from the brilliant engineers in Cupertino.   There is nothing wrong per se with buying the latest and greatest Apple gadget, but if Apple had invested a minimal amount of its research into retaining upgradable storage, I could have kept my previous model for several more years.

Recycling is not the panacea that Apple presents

I am just one case of millions who contribute to e-waste caused by non-upgraded and difficult to repair products.  While Apple celebrates recycling, the reality is that 60% of e-waste ends up in landfills, and even when a product is recycled, most of the energy and material resources used to create it cannot be recovered.

Only a fraction of the materials in a typical gadget can be recovered, and it is just as likely to end up in a landfill somewhere in Asia or Africa.  Separating electronics and other kinds of consumer waste is highly labor intensive, with thousands of different kinds of plastics alone.  This is why the majority of recycled material is sent to China, which does not have minimum wage laws that make recycling unprofitable in Western countries.

The real reasons why Apple products are non-upgradable

Apple has legitimate business reasons to force customers to buy expensive new hardware on a regular basis rather than allow them to keep upgrading and maintaining it.  Obviously, buying a new product directly from Apple more frequently results in better profits.  There are other good reasons why Apple might want a shorter product cycle:

  • Newer products provide a better user experience, one which consumers experience during the life of the product, as opposed to the one-time expense of buying.
  • Non-upgradable, non-maintainable products are cheaper to manufacture and easier to support since Apple does not need to carry replacement parts, train its staff, or worry about old or odd hardware configurations.
  • In some cases, non-upgradable products can be made smaller, since modular components add bulk — though Apple sometimes makes components non-upgradable even when there does not seem to benefit from miniaturization.
  • Apple makes more money selling entire devices than parts:  parts for upgrades are often made by third parties and repairs are often performed out in cheaper repair shops rather than Apple stores.

Apple misleads about it’s “green energy” usage

Another egregious misleading claim from Apple is that its data-centers are powered by “100% green energy.”  First, 70% of the energy used by a typical laptop is consumed during its manufactureAccording to Apple itself,  only 17% of the energy used for its devices come from product usage.  The rest comes from manufacturing, transporting and recycling.

What’s worse is that Apple’s claim that 100% if the energy used to power data centers comes from renewable energy simply isn’t true.  As Don Carrington writes in Carolina Journal, “California-based Apple promotes its 500,000-square-foot data center in Maiden, N.C., by saying it runs “100 percent” on renewable energy even though the facility continues to get all of its electricity from Duke Energy, a public utility that primarily generates electricity using coal, nuclear power, and natural gas.”

As Alex Epstein explains,  Apple pays other energy users who derive a fraction of the energy usage from renewable energy to “credit” their renewable consumption to Apple.   For example, a factory which gets 5% of its energy from wind power will “credit” that wind power to Apple, and Apple credits some of their coal-powered data center usage to the factory:

Apple’s flagship data center in Maiden, NC, for example draws from the local Duke Energy grid with 51% nuclear power, 38% coal power, and less than 1% renewable sources in 2014, according to the latest report by Apple.

The average percentage values for the local grid power available to Apple’s data centers as disclosed in the report for 2014 include 34.8% coal, 22.3% natural gas, 18.3% nuclear, and only 10.6% renewables

This kind of twisted accounting is a fraud is only acceptable in environmental impact statements and government budgets.

The policy impact of misleading claims on the environment

Despite the above criticism, I am a loyal Apple customer and plan to keep using their products.  I also think that Apple has legitimate reasons for intentionally crippling the upgradability of their products.   Furthermore, Apple devices are highly durable and enjoy a rich repair and reuse ecosystem independent of Apple’s support or sanction.  Even completely broken Apple laptops and phones can be resold for hundreds of dollars because third parties have created their own repair tools and parts, and small shops in developing countries are happy to fix and resell your broken iPhone.

Apple is welcome to make its products in any way it chooses, but its messaging is dishonest and misleads the public about broader policy issues.  Specifically:

  • Apple, like all other manufacturing industry, currently depends on non-renewable energy such as coal, nuclear, and natural gas.  We are much farther from a fully renewable economy than Apple’s messaging seems to suggest.
  • The majority of the energy usage of electronic goods happens during production, and recycling does not recover any of the energy used to make a product or the majority of its raw materials.  Furthermore, recycling is not nearly as comprehensive or efficient as the public believes.
  • Apple can be actively hostile to consumers ability to repair their products.  For example, it does not publish repair manuals and makes repairs more difficult with proprietary screws.   Even worse, many companies use copyright law to prevent consumers from being able to share repair manuals or device firmware.
  • Human labor is one of the major ingredients of high-end electronics, and recycling not only fails to recover it but adds to the labor cost of products.

If Apple really wants to lower its environmental impact, it should encourage reuse rather than just recycling of its products and contribute to an honest discussion of energy usage.