Closing the Loop in IT and Electronics by Tiffany Kilfeather, July 19 2017, 0 Comments

Apple Sustainability

The E-Waste Problem

The United States threw away a whopping 41.8 million tons of electronic waste in 2014, of which only 12% was recycled properly. Considering that last year (2016) alone, 70.2 million PCs and 1.47 billion smartphones were shipped worldwide, with Apple claiming the top vendor spot, what can be done to better manage this e-waste and make sure it's disposed of properly? 

Even if just a fraction of these buyers are on their second or third iteration of their iMac computers or iPhone devices, imagine the ginormous piles of electronic waste we are creating and mishandling. When not recycled properly, electronic waste is either burned, releasing harmful gases; sent to a landfill, leaching toxic chemicals into the soil; or often shipped to developing countries, where recycling infrastructure is typically absent and methods can neglect environmental or human health concerns.

Apple's Big Announcement

So, what are these giant tech companies doing to combat these issues? For one, Apple has not let this problem go unnoticed. In April, the leading tech vendor announced their intention to build a closed-loop supply chain—meaning production that uses 100% renewable resources or recycled materials, and the end to mining from the earth. It also means lowering carbon emissions by smelting aluminum with hydroelectricity rather than fossil fuels, and working toward powering facilities worldwide with renewable energy.

This, however, is a large undertaking that will require years of collaboration among different Apple teams, their suppliers and recycling partners, and top notch innovation not only in the production of new tech, but in its design as well. Even with their efforts and despite a 23% decline from the year before, in 2016, the carbon footprint of Apple was 29.5 million metric tons—with the second biggest contributor to this being aluminum manufacturing. And although recycling these appliances is a big part of reducing these emissions—which Apple encourages customers to do through their Apple Renew program—another part of it is manufacturing devices with better repair capabilities and rates. 

A recent guide born from a collaboration by Greenpeace and iFixit and aimed to help consumers purchase the greenest electronics, marked Apple, Samsung and Microsoft devices to be the least repairable and in turn, most wasteful at the end of a product's life. The tested electronics included smartphones, tablets and laptops. Although Samsung took the bottom spot, Apple devices landed somewhere in the middle (caution zone), receiving 7/10 for longevity and repairability.

So, it seems, Apple still has some work to do. Perhaps, they could explore devices with a more modular design. This has been another goal of some companies when creating longer-lasting, more environmentally conscious technology—to build modular designs made of smaller parts that are capable of easy updates and repairs, and which allow consumers to customize the device based on their needs and interests. Google’s “Project Ara” attempted to invent such a device, but was scrapped last September when the project was deemed “too ambitious and costly”. Other companies have taken up the gauntlet, however, and Lenovo's Moto Mods, as well as the Netherlands-based Fairphone, offer partially modular phones for purchase.

Doing Our Part as Tech-Addicts

But it’s not only up to the manufacturers—consumers have an important part to play in this too, beyond just purchasing power. In addition to Apple Renew mentioned above, which distributes gift cards and store credit in exchange for turning in qualifying devices, new e-waste recycling centers are popping up all over the world, such as in Singapore and Canada. Homeboy Electronics Recycling, based in LA, even gives vocational training to former inmates, serving both an environmental and social mission. And the e-stewards program, developed by the non-profit Basel Action Network, helps conscious consumers find local, certified electronics recyclers, ensuring that no hazardous, illegal e-waste is exported to developing nations. One such recycler is Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) a long-time partner and supporter of EcoPlum,

In short, after applauding Apple’s efforts to establish 100% recyclable products using renewable energy, let's all put our money and efforts into shops and companies that take responsibility for the waste their products produce and let's recycle responsibly. 

Article composed by Tiffany Kilfeather and Silvia Milanova.