What is the environmental impact of an iPad?

by | Jun 13, 2019

Apple reportedly sold more than 40 million iPads worldwide in 2018 alone, with an average of 120 000 iPads sold daily. These incredibly high numbers raise questions regarding the resources mobilized to support such high production and distribution rates.

Indeed, manufacturing an iPad is a complex process, requiring many different materials before being distributed all over the world.

At Newzik, we understood that it was virtually impossible to guess what resources were used to manufacture an iPad. As a result, and following many requests from our customers, we decided to undertake an in-depth study on the subject and provide more clarity around the environmental footprint of using an iPad for music performance.

This report is divided into two parts. We will start with a broad overview of an iPad’s life cycle (the product for which Newzik was designed) and an assessment of how relevant the widely-used environmental performance indicators actually are.

We will then closely examine the ongoing measures undertaken by Apple to make its products more sustainable. We will also outline several ways in which product sustainability might be improved, based not only on Apple’s environmental report, but also on our own research and interviews with several NGOs.

1) How to measure an iPad’s environmental impact?

Understanding a product’s life cycle.

To measure the environmental impact of an iPad, we first need to understand each step in the tablet’s life cycle. Starting on the top left of the diagram, with “Source Materials”, we will then work our way down clockwise.

Source materials:

This step consists in getting the raw material, whether they be very common (e.g. plastic) or much rarer (e.g. the lithium used in the batteries).

Make:

This step is clear in itself: it consists in transforming all the material to create a functional iPad. This whole step takes place in factories.

Package & Ship:

Packaging unfolds once iPads are functional and ready to go. During packaging, tablets are put in boxes to be available to sell. Then, these iPads are transported to the sales points.

Use:

“Usage” means everything you, as a user, do with your iPad between the time you buy it and the time it stops working.

Recover:

The end of life consists in disposing of an electronic product as cleanly as possible, often through a recycling policy.

You now know the complete life cycle of an iPad, but you have yet to discover the “rating criteria” on which to measure the environmental impact of a product.

Key Indicators.

Let’s now define what our observations on the ecological impact of the Apple tablet will be based on.

1. The use of fossil fuels vs. renewable energies

“Fossil energy” is defined as any source of energy that comes from the fossilization of living things. More precisely, this refers to: oil, coal and all their compounds. These fossil fuels are available in limited quantities on Earth because they take a long time to form.

Renewable energies, on the other hand, are constantly renewed by nature, but they generally carry less energy than their fossil counterparts. All forms of renewable energy come from two sources: the Sun (from which the wind, water cycles and plant growth are derived) and the Earth (and more specifically its heat).

Thus, one of the main angles to approach energy consumption of any human activity is to determine the cleanliness of its energy sources.

2. The activities’ carbon footprint

The carbon footprint refers to the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted by an activity: it is expressed in CO2 equivalent, i.e the quantity (in kg) of CO2  required to produce the same effect regarding global warming.

The higher its carbon footprint, the more polluting an activity will be deemed. Activities that emit greenhouse gas happen mainly during the extraction of resources, the production and transport to the various world markets.

At a time when the environment is at the center of many debates, you may find it surprising that there are practically no standards governing carbon emissions from private actors.

Indeed, ecological regulations today takes two main forms:

  • The banning of certain products (the example of glyphosate has recently made headlines);
  • An obligation of relative transparency regarding the carbon emissions of each company, which mainly involves the affixing (or not) of eco-labels.

This last measure is very interesting: it tells us that the consumer is responsible in our ecological transition. By requiring companies to be more transparent about their polluting activities, governments are making eco-responsibility a competitive and strategic element in the marketplace. Indeed, these labels indicate who are the “good students” in terms of ecological commitment.

3. The use of rare materials

Measuring an activity’s carbon footprint or energy consumption is not always enough to fully estimate its ecological impact. Indeed, some products (including the iPad) require certain rare resources for their manufacture.

This is the case with any smartphone or tablet, which uses resources such as lithium, gold, silver or neodymium, one of the least abundant compounds on the planet. This is not strictly speaking energy, but rather minerals or metals. However, like fossil fuels, they require extraction and do not renew themselves. The extraction of these materials must therefore be considered when analyzing an activity: this is called resource depletion.

2) Analyzing strengths and areas of improvement.

A shift towards renewable energies. 

Apple’s first measure concerns green energies and their increasing use during the life cycle of their products.

It is probably in the area of clean energy that Apple has made the most progress in recent years. The progress in this direction is very simple to understand and speak for themselves:

  • As far as the energy source is concerned, since 2018 Apple has ensured that all its plants are powered by renewable energy (this of course does not influence the overall quantity of energy);
  • The brand also exercises very rigorous control over its suppliers and imposes eco-responsibility criteria on them;
  • Data centers (i.e. the physical locations where many servers hosting user data are concentrated) linked to Apple services such as iMessage, Siri, FaceTime and iTunes also operate entirely on renewable energy;
  • Finally, the brand’s energy consumption per appliance has also been drastically reduced in recent years. Apple’s Progress report informs us that the average consumption of their products has decreased by 70% since 2009.

Consumption per appliance has therefore not only decreased considerably in recent years, but also comes from cleaner sources than before.

The question of transport:

A point rarely mentioned by Apple concerns the transport of finished goods. Indeed, while factories and appliances have become less and less polluting, freight transport has not changed since the brand’s explosion in popularity at the end of the 2000s.

Performance requirements currently prevent Apple from using an eco-responsible mode of transportation. This aspect of the Apple product lifecycle is not well documented in the brand’s environmental reports.

One point of improvement that deserves to be mentioned, however, is that of the Apple Store: by creating its own distribution channels (i.e. the Apple Stores), the brand has succeeded in creating internal goods channels that are less polluting.

However, the unimaginable number of resellers and the multiplication of e-commerce services (first and foremost Amazon) lead us to qualify this improvement. We would therefore recommend that you go directly to the store to buy your Apple products if you are looking to reduce your environmental impact!

Indeed, in addition to the thousands of other distributors, who require additional transport channels, it is also necessary to take into account the fact that the products sold via Amazon (and other e-commerce platforms) are often transported by air, the most polluting mode of transport.

Let’s now turn to our second issue: the carbon footprint of the iPad’s lifecycle.

The iPads carbon footprint.

If we focus our analysis on the latest iPad Pro model, official data tells us that an iPad induces an emission of 113kg of CO2 equivalent over its life cycle.

Compare this to the carbon emissions of a standard book (500 grams). According to this article, we learn that a book emits just over 1.2 kg of CO2 equivalent over its entire life cycle. According to this logic, the production of an iPad would emit as many greenhouse gases as the production of 94 books. In the context of professional music practice, it seems reasonable to say that a musician will have to play on more than 94 different scores (because of insufficient data, we will consider that a book and a score are roughly the same product) between the purchase of their iPad and its end of life.

We have two figures to support this intuition:

  • A symphony orchestra prints about 57,000 pages per year for copies of “homemade” scores for its musicians, the equivalent of 380 books per year just for photocopies;
  • On average, a 108-piece British orchestra produces 416,000 kg of CO2 equivalent during an Asian tour. This is equivalent to about 3,700 iPads.

We have also prepared a brief graph illustrating carbon footprint equivalencies.

 

We leave the computation of CO2 equivalences between an iPad and daily products to your discretion. It should also be noted that an iPad is not only used for reading. A tablet also allows you to digitally import your music, magazines, comics, movies and other applications (see the bonus at the end of the article for more detailed information about this).

Moreover, although it is strictly impossible to quantify the extent of this phenomenon, we would like to bring to your attention the immense amount of carbon induced by the transport of paper scores between orchestras:  scores are usually simply rented for a handful of performances, then returned either to the publisher or to another orchestra. Given its volume, this sheet music requires huge resources to be transported from the publishers’ storage spaces throughout the world. Without being able to give you any figures, we simply wanted to point out that printing and the use of raw materials are not the only polluting activities of a musical practice on paper: even more so, they are probably negligible compared to the colossal comings and goings of sheet music all over the world.

If we now look at the distribution of carbon emissions by activity, the graph below shows us that our intuitions are often wrong!

 

 

In fact, by purchasing an iPad, 95% of the greenhouse gases induced directly by the product are already in the atmosphere. Contrary to popular belief, your ecological arbitrage should therefore take place before the purchase rather than modulate your use of the tablet.

Indeed, Apple’s tablet is almost flawless in the “use” phase, with an energy consumption that is 68% lower than the EnergyStar eco-label threshold! Please note that this label is complex to obtain for many brands, and Apple’s results in terms of energy consumption in use is among the best in the world. This information is given to us loud and clear in the iPad’s environmental report. By requiring less energy to function, your tablet requires less effort from data centers, uses less electricity during charging, and therefore has a lower impact on our environment.

Apple is constantly improving its carbon footprint per device, and this can be seen at several stages in the life cycle of their products.

If you were to remember only one number, it would be the following: Apple has reduced its total greenhouse gas emissions by 35% compared to 2015.

Apple is gradually freeing itself from its dependence on rare materials.

By delving into both the iPad’s environmental report and Apple’s progress report, we quickly realize that the brand is aware of the importance of resource depletion in our society and is seeking to free itself from certain constraints without necessarily achieving it.

The main advancements:

In terms of production, Apple has embarked on better water management. More specifically, the Californian brand’s actions for better water management consist of:

  • Reducing the volume of water used;
  • A more responsible spill to avoid pollution;

With regard to the packaging of their products, Apple has also initiated many changes to improve its consumption of raw materials. Now, the boxes of your iPads:

  • Do not contain plastic;
  • Are composed of 95% vegetable fiber, of which 38% are recycled;
  • Only use wood from forests that are responsibly managed.

Finally, the treatment of damaged or unusable products is the area in which Apple is most proactive. The brand launched a program that is still too little known today: Apple Give Back, introduced in 2018. With Apple Give Back, you can test the eligibility of your old devices, which will lead to one of the following decisions:

  • If your device is eligible, it will be exchanged for an Apple Store gift card;
  • If your device is not eligible, it will be given to Apple, which will dispose of it in the most environmentally responsible way possible, free of charge (in reality, 25 cents are dedicated to recycling when you buy an iPad).

Managing obsolete devices is therefore Apple’s spearhead against resource depletion, and it has successfully implemented a sustainable waste management process that has virtually no carbon footprint and prevents the waste of many valuable resources. Indeed, the recycling allowed by Apple Give Back helps to create a kind of “circular supply chain”: the still functional components of old Apple devices are used in the manufacture of new products. However, users must be aware of the existence of this program and use it effectively.

 

Areas for improvement:

The extraction of rare minerals is one of the few areas in which the brand has very little wiggle room, because it cannot do without certain materials to produce its tablets. These materials can range from common but polluting products (e.g. aluminum) to much rarer chemical elements such as lithium.

The Apple brand is well aware of this issue and has therefore identified 14 priority materials on which many current and future efforts will be focused: aluminum, cobalt, copper, glass, gold, lithium, paper, plastic, scarce terrestrial compounds, steel, tin, zinc, tantalum and tungsten.

The advances depend on the considered material. In fact, there are three main categories:

  • Materials increasingly used in recycled form (aluminum, paper, steel and tin);
  • Materials that are gradually being replaced by less polluting alternatives (copper and plastic);
  • The materials that Apple is trying to recycle but has so far failed to do convincingly (cobalt, glass, gold, rare earth compounds, tungsten, tantalum, zinc and lithium).

Conclusion 

An important point that every reader should keep in mind when concluding this article is Apple’s desire to present itself as a kind of role model in the fight against climate change. This marks a real change in the brand’s strategy, which now seems to integrate eco-responsibility into its brand image.

The main advances concern the shift towards clean energy both during production and in the energy consumption of Apple products.

The second major achievement in recent years has been carbon emissions per device, which proves useful to compensate the quantitative increase in Apple products. Compared to the 113 kg of CO2 emissions on our tablet, a standard Dell computer emits between 200 and 300 kg (twice as much).

Resource depletion is therefore the main area on which the brand is now focusing its efforts after having won its bet on energy sources and carbon emissions. One thing is certain: using an iPad is becoming more and more eco-responsible!

The current figures can obviously be improved, and an actor of Apple’s size must be exemplary in its environmental fight.

 

Bonus : Three tips to reduce your ecological footprint.

Of course, you have opportunities to reduce your impact on the environment, both when you buy your iPad and when you use it.

Before you buy:

  • If you already own an Apple device, we warmly invite you to replace it only if it stops working properly. Most electronics manufacturers make considerable marketing efforts to encourage you to buy back before your current product fails. However, buying a new device will be polluting not only because of the resources mobilized for its production, but also because on a large scale, it considerably increases the volume of global sales. By contributing to the increase in demand, we are making a significant contribution to increasing the quantities produced.
  • An extremely salutary practice for our environment is to buy refurbished products: they are as efficient as the ones you will find in stores, cheaper, and avoid you to unnecessarily supply demand from major brands: the main obstacle to these products is of a psychological nature. If you are willing to try, it will drastically reduce your ecological footprint.

    Once the product is between your hands:

    While it is true that Apple’s product consumption is itself well below market averages, it is important to understand that this does not mean that your use of your tablet will not have any impact on your environmental footprint.

    Indeed, let’s take an extremely common example: you are watching a YouTube video at home. The consumption of your device itself will be reduced if you use an iPad, but Apple has no control over the consumption of the servers of the website you’re browsing, YouTube.

    To summarize roughly: Although the pollution coming directly from your device is limited, you have a considerable wiggle room on “global” pollution by reasoning your use of the tablet.

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