Does Apple Hate the Environment?

by Steve Wildstrom   |   July 12th, 2012

No EPEATApple has had a complicated relationship with environmentalists. The company prides itself on its greenness in many ways, having been a leader in eliminating lead, bromides, PVC, and excess packaging from its products and building renewable energy sources for its North Carolina data center. But it has tangled frequently with environmental groups, especially Greenpeace.

Some of Apple’s clashes appear to result from tension between a narrow, regulation-based view of environmentalism and the demands of product innovation. Apple ignited the latest round in a running battle this week by pulling out of EPEAT, a organization dedicated to, as its mission statement says, “a world where the negative environmental and social impacts of electronics are continually reduced and electronic products are designed to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainability.” Not only will Apple not submit new products for EPEAT certification, but it asked to remove 39 already certified products from the EPEAT registry.

Apple, as usual, remains opaque about its motivations and intentions. It is stoic in the face of criticism–a Greenpeace spokesman said Apple ”has pitted design against the environment — and chosen design. They’re making a big bet that people don’t care, but recycling is a big issue.” Prodded by The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple (a Tech.pinions contributor), Apple’s Kristen Huguet said: “Apple takes a comprehensive approach to measuring our environmental impact and all of our products meet the strictest energy efficiency standards backed by the US government, Energy Star 5.2. We also lead the industry by reporting each product’s greenhouse gas emissions on our website, and Apple products are superior in other important environmental areas not measured by EPEAT, such as removal of toxic materials.”

Pulling out of EPEAT could cost Apple. The City of San Francisco has a policy that requires it to buy EPEAT certified products and it says it won’t be buying any more Macs from Apple. (EPEAT standards cover laptops and desktops, not phones or tablets.) Federal agencies that wish to buy Macs would have to seek waivers to purchase non-certified products. But it’s worth noting that while enterprises have begon to buy iPads in large numbers, they have not be major Mac customers.

There may be less here than meets the eye. With the newest iPads and MacBook Pros, Apple has moved to more integrated designs. Display electronics are bonded to glass and batteries are bonded to the case. This violates EPEAT standards, which require that that electronic product be easy to disassemble into recyclable components. This doesn’t mean that Apple products can’t be recycled or even necessarily that they are harder to recycle (though they may be.)  All we can say for certain is that the new Apple products fail to meet a set of prescriptive rules that define “sustainability” in a very specific way.

This is a frequent problem with regulation. Regulators, whether government agencies or private alliances of “stakeholders” like EPEAT, love to prescribe solutions. Follow the checklist and you get certification. It’s easy for the regulators, the regulated, and for the compliance-assistance industries that inevitably spring up. But it is hell on innovation. Prescriptive regulations are most easily complied with if you go on doing things the way they have always been done. Regulators, public or private, respond more slowly than markets and often serve to discourage the adoption of new technologies that don’t fit well into the existing regulatory paradigm. Regulations also tend to lag well behind changes in the markets; witness the fact that EPEAT has not yet caught up with smartphones or tablets. (If you want a particularly horrible example of regulatory lag, consider the Federal Communications Commission, which is trying to shoehorn rapidly evolving radio technologies into a regime of spectrum allocation that seems stuck in the mid-20th century.)

Because of Apple’s reticence, I don’t know whether its new products are really less “green” or “sustainable”–whatever, exactly, that means. Perhaps, the difficulty of disassembling them is offset by less use of materials, or elimination of toxics, or other gains. The company, in its magnificent indifference, is losing the PR war by refusing to fight. But we should be very careful not to assume that just because Apple has withdrawn from a voluntary standard that is has decided to rape the environment–or even that it is sacrificing responsbility on the altar of design.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Rich

    Maybe Apple is trying to move to a more modern standard recycling standard. I hope so.

  • Frank George

    I’m an industrial designer and I despair at the specifications and bogus green marketing Apples gets away with.

    Apple’s unibody laptops start as solid Aluminium billets that are cut to the outline dimensions of the device before 13 milling processes shave away about 97% of the material. The unibody has fixing points inside for all the electronics and wires, while the single piece construction means it is stronger.

    Aluminium requires some of the highest energy input to process from raw. It’s so energy intensive that ships from as far away as Indonesia sail to Iceland to tap into the cheap limitless geothermal energy they have up there.

    The 97% waste/burr/shrapnel can be reused, but then requires melting and reforming into billets. Apples previous heavily marketed claims of using aluminium and glass because they are recyclable are laughable because of how wasteful their manufacturing process is.

    Now as a counterpoint take the Asus Zen book. Stamped aluminium with milling to finish. Waste 3-5% and still as impressive a piece of design and engineering.

    Other than the increasing disregard for the environment that Apple has as a claimed thought leader, the bigger point is that they are selling more product lines that don’t allow any third party repairs or upgrading. The product doesn’t grow with the user needs, and before anyone suggests they are plenty well specc’d, just remind yourself what constituted for a powerful laptop 5years ago and how that is easily beat by a quad core smartphone today. Software and services evolve to fully utilise every progressive step technology takes. This is more about the consumer losing out.

    Apple repairs are outrageously expensive and you only need to look to Italy where all products come with 2yr guarantees and Apple’s refusal to extend their 1yr warranty to match the 2yr standard is enough of an indication of their belief in their premium product. In fact to really put it into perspective, for the first few years the iPod came with a ridiculous 6month warranty! What the hell does that say, especially when the first few generations of the iPod had well know battery degradation issues.

    Form before function, planet or consumers and after profit margins is what Apple stands for today. And it makes me sad as someone who learnt to develop on the Apple 2e and even owned a Newton at one point.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I’ve never understood why Apple doesn’t die cast the case blanks and then machine down to the finished shell. Seems like that would be a much more efficient process. Any insight?

      • http://twitter.com/qka qka

        I’m no metallurgist, but castings are usually brittle. So how the billet is formed before it is machined has an effect on the strength of the finished product. A cast case blank might not be as strong.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rudolf.charel Rudolf Charel

      Icelandic aluminium is produced at no environmental cost. The ships used to ship the product to China and the Far East would return there empty anyway, so their environmental damage would exist anyway.

      Recycled aluminium uses only 5% of the energy needed compared to making it from bauxite.

      Can you substantiate your claim that “the increasing disregard for the environment that Apple has as a claimed thought leader”

      As to the 2 year guarantee in the EU, there is a real difference in the cover offered by Apple compared to the Italian 2 year guarantee. I agree that the buyer beware before paying for the Apple guarantee.

      Apple takes back any of its products for disposal to avoid damage to the environment. That is much better than the huge mountains of useless other PCs shipped to Africa for disposal.

  • Ari

    Green products from Apple is an oxymoron. Like the rest of the electronics industry, Apple pushes new models that are just moderately better than the original, encouraging its existing buyers to ditch their slightly used models. Buying a new phone, tablet or computer on a yearly basis is inherently wasteful and certainly not green.

    Apple wants its fans to believe that it stands for something more than consumerism and excess consumption. But their commercial image is a distraction from the reality – cheap labor, metals extracted and recycled with real environmental consequences, and thoughtless consumption. It’s unfair to call out Apple specifically since much of the electronics industry operates the same way, but Apple wants people to imagine that it is something more.

    • FalKirk

      “Like the rest of the electronics industry, Apple pushes new models that are just moderately better than the original…”

      This is complete rubbish. There isn’t a more competitive industry in the world that personal computing. Every company in tech is pushing out newer and better cutting edge products merely to survive. Suggesting that anyone in personal computing is only putting out “moderately better” products than the last iteration flies in the face of marking and earning realities.

      “… encouraging its existing buyers to ditch their slightly used models…”

      That’s a function of the speed of progress in tech, which completely contradicts the first part of your sentence. Most of those used phones, tablets and notebooks don’t disappear or even get recycled. They get resold or passed down to family and friends and others.

    • FalKirk

      “Like the rest of the electronics industry, Apple pushes new models that are just moderately better than the original…”

      This is complete rubbish. There isn’t a more competitive industry in the world that personal computing. Every company in tech is pushing out newer and better cutting edge products merely to survive. Suggesting that anyone in personal computing is only putting out “moderately better” products than the last iteration flies in the face of marking and earning realities.

      “… encouraging its existing buyers to ditch their slightly used models…”

      That’s a function of the speed of progress in tech, which completely contradicts the first part of your sentence. Most of those used phones, tablets and notebooks don’t disappear or even get recycled. They get resold or passed down to family and friends and others.

  • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

    It is stoic in the face of criticism–a Greenpeace spokesman said Apple ”has pitted design against the environment — and chosen design. They’re making a big bet that people don’t care, but recycling is a big issue.”

    The last people on the face of he planet who should be quote mined about Apple is Greenpeace. When Dell, HP and almost every other major PC manufacturer was making promises and putting out pretty PDFs (promises they reneged on; just check Dell’s Energy Star compliance) Apple just went ahead and made the changes, in some cases years ahead of their competitors. Apple’s packaging has been minimalist for years, while plastic netbooks still come in suitcase sized mostly empty boxes.

    Add to Apple’s across the board Energy Star compliance, Apple will take any Apple product back at any Apple store. Greenpeace will love the publicity they can yet again generate by slagging Apple, but the reality will be that Apple is two steps ahead of everyone.