iPhone 12: Is Apple’s leap towards carbon neutrality enough?

As soon as you navigate to apple.com/environment, you are presented with Apple’s top initiatives for achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 for both its operations and products. Other tech giants, such as Google and Facebook, have made similar commitments. Carbon neutrality means having net zero carbon impact, in which all greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. carbon dioxide exhausted by automobiles that contribute to global warming) are either reduced (through operating with renewable energy and converting to more energy efficient operations) and/or offset (reducing emissions somewhere else such as investing in renewable energy).

Arguably one of Apple’s most public-facing initiatives towards carbon neutrality is the announcement of the new iPhone 12 earlier this month. They removed the charging adapter and wired EarPods from all four of the upcoming models, which was previously included for years. As a result, Apple claims that their iPhone boxes will be considerably smaller and 70% more phones will fit onto one shipping pallet.

“The initiative by Apple to stop including headphones and chargers is a step forward to reduce unnecessary EEE (electrical and electronic equipment products).” Teresa Domenech of University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources told CNBC. “This could not only help to reduce waste but also would prevent upstream environmental impacts linked to the extraction of primary raw materials, manufacturing and distribution of products.”

Lisa Jackson, Apple VP of environment, policy and social initiatives, said: “We know that customers have been accumulating USB power adapters, and that producing millions of unneeded adapters consumes resources and adds to our carbon footprint.”

Apple believes that there are over 700 million pairs of wired EarPods and around 2 billion power adapters in circulation around the world. This number doesn’t even include the millions of 3rd party adapters out there! We can only hope that other competitors out there like Samsung, Google and Huawei will consider these impacts.

Summary of Apple’s Current Initiatives

In addition to reducing the size of the iPhone box in most markets*, Apple is also committing to source 100% recycled and renewable materials for all products and packaging. So far, they’ve reduced plastic in their packaging by 58%, every 12-inch Macbook Air with Retina display since July 2019 contains over 40% recycled content, and the Taptic Engine (the vibration feedback you feel after touch input) is made of 100% recycled earth elements. They even built their own robot to extract useful materials from recycled devices.

*iPhones sold in France still include the EarPods to comply with French law (every mobile phone must include some form of hands-free kit or headset to protect children aged under 14 years old from exposure to electromagnetic waves).

Currently, all operations (e.g. Apple Stores, Data Centres, etc.) are running on 100% renewable energy and by 2030, all products will be manufactured with 100% renewable energy. This is no small feat as this requires an agreement between Apple and their manufacturing partners to use renewable energy (70+ suppliers have agreed at the time this article was written). They are also continuously making their products more energy efficient. In fact, based on U.S. average electricity costs, Apple estimated that it only costs about 70 cents a year to charge your iPhone once a day.

Underlying Problems

Don’t get me wrong, Apple has done a lot but for a company that is responsible for a large chunk of the global 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste (2019), the real question is if it is enough. Note that Apple (like other tech companies) is not required to disclose their electronic waste totals although they do claim that they are working on collecting and reporting this data in future years.

USB-C Power Cable Included in Box

At first glance, Apple has great intentions to remove the charging adapter and EarPods however, they included a USB-C to Lightning cable. This cable is only compatible with USB-C charging adapters, which many won’t have yet if they are coming from an older iPhone.

Kaiann Drance, VP of iPhone Marketing, does explain that old adapters and cables will still work with your new iPhone 12, although the new USB-C cables offer faster charging/data transfer. She goes on to say, “if you’re an Apple user and you happen to have a Mac or an iPad, we’ve also included those USB-C power adapters in recent years for those products, and the computer ports themselves include USB-C. So those are other options for you.”

So, if you want to make use of the new cable that comes with the phone (and don’t have a Mac or iPad), you’ll have to purchase a USB-C adapter separately…in its own packaging.

Or maybe you picked up the MagSafe charger with your iPhone 12. In that case, you still need to make sure you have a USB-C adapter because it doesn’t come with one in that box either!

Apple MagSafe Charger

When will Apple move to the USB-C industry standard?

Why hasn’t Apple moved towards USB-C cables instead of their proprietary Lightning cables for their iPhones? The iPad has been using USB-C for two generations and MacBooks even longer. The more Lightning cables are produced and provided to consumers, the more end up in landfills once Apple finally moves to the industry standard and the cables become obsolete.

There are a number of claims, one from reputable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, that the new MagSafe charging feature could be Apple’s first step towards a completely wireless future. The iPhone 12 debuted the MagSafe technology so that people are ready for iPhone 13 (or whatever it may be called in 2021), which is rumoured to not have a charging port at all! With no port, this unfortunately means that all Lightning cables will be of no use and eventually end up in landfills.

So is it enough?

Well, this is the big question and not one that can be answered easily. I am not one that believes companies need to drop everything to save the planet. Apple is a business so its main goal is to make money and its advances in technology are definitely exciting for consumers.

The short answer is no, it’s not enough. Although Apple’s making great strides towards carbon neutrality, their focus is still on mass production. Until they start adopting strategies that focus on reuse (modular and repairable components), they will continue to deplete natural resources.

What I do hope in the short term is that Apple continues to increase their transparency (such as reporting on e-waste) and share its environmental efforts in a way that helps consumers make their purchase decisions. Consumers need to become more aware of how Apple is impacting people, profits AND the planet both positively and negatively.

About me

A little about me, something I haven’t shared much through this blog yet is that I have a Master’s of Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. I firmly believe that proper inter-functional collaboration and corporate social responsibility can have a positive impact on society. As you know, in my free time I share my thoughts and reviews on the latest technology. My best work comes from the perspective of a consumer who loves technology, and also understands the social, economic and environmental impact it has on society, both positively and negatively. I hope you will follow me here on technomuscle.com and @technomuscle on social 🙂.