Apple updates environmental progress, focuses on climate change, finite resources

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Just in time for Earth Day, Apple has updated its environmental site with the latest information about the many green initiatives it has put in place. Most prominently, the company has assembled a video, narrated by CEO Tim Cook, speaking about how Apple applies its overriding philosophy—striving to make better products—to its commitment to the environment.

A letter from the company’s vice president of environmental initiatives, former Environmental Protection Agency director Lisa Jackson, echoes Cook’s sentiments: “We aim to create not just the best products in the world, but the best products for the world,” writes Jackson.

Even one of Apple’s most vocal critics in recent years, Greenpeace, had a few kind things to say about the company’s progress. “Apple has been the most aggressive company in the technology sector about fulfilling its pledge to power its data centers with 100-percent renewable energy,” Greenpeace spokesperson David Pomerantz told Macworld via email. “We agree with Tim Cook’s message praising the progress Apple has made to date, and also with his recognition that Apple still has work to do to become greener, especially in its manufacturing supply chain in China.”

Such kind words didn’t, however, extend to all of Cupertino’s rivals: “Some of Apple’s competitors, like Amazon, which still powers its corner of the internet with dirty energy and has made no signs of changing, would do well to follow Apple’s lead.”

In this latest update, Apple focused on a few particular areas, specifically how it prepares for and helps combat climate change and its plans for dealing with the planet’s finite resources.

Climate change

In terms of climate change, the company has been more diligent over the last few years about measuring its carbon footprint, which for 2013 came in at 33,800,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. In 2012, the company reported 30.9 million metric tons.

apple gnreenhouse gases

Apple's breakdown of its greenhouse gas emissions. 

However, it’s not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison—if you’ll pardon the expression. The company points out that while it had been using industry-standard methods to determine how much emissions were generated by its use of aluminum—one of the most prevalent materials in its products—it decided to conduct its own study on the impact of the metal’s use.

The results of that study showed that the emissions from the construction of aluminum exteriors of its products were actually four times higher than the conventional method reported. That information was factored into the company’s carbon footprint for 2013, yielding a net increase of 9 percent—had the company stuck to the conventional reporting method, its emissions numbers actually would have decreased by 10 percent.

While small contributions came from facilities, recycling, transportation, and product usage, the overriding bulk of those emissions—23.6 million tons—result from the company’s manufacturing processes. That’s about 69 percent of emissions, higher than in 2012, when manufacturing accounted for 61 percent.

As with last year, the company also touted its focus on environmentally-friendly power, noting that all of its data centers are completely powered by renewable energy sources, including its newest installation in Reno, Nevada, where the company is building a brand new solar array that will generate 43 million kWh of clean power.

One weak spot in Apple’s line-up is the third-party colocation facilities that the company uses to supplement its own data centers. Currently, just 70 percent of the power for those installations are provided by renewable sources, but it’s aiming to bring that number up to the same 100 percent as its own data centers.

Overall, 73 percent of the company’s facilities are powered by renewable energy, but the company isn’t giving up. It’s even rolled out renewable energy to 120 of its U.S. retail stores this year, with plans to expand to more.

Apple hopes to improve the environmental friendliness of its facilities even further when it finishes construction on its new ‘spaceship’ campus. A video on the company’s site discusses the design process, as well as the goal of making the new buildings fit in with the surrounding environment—including the planting of more than 6000 new trees.

apple campus cooling

Apple's new 'spaceship' campus aims to rely on outdoor air circulation for 75 percent of the year, rather than heating or air conditioning. 

In addition to its energy-friendly facilities, the company emphasizes the power efficiency of its own products, pointing out that it has reduced the average total power consumed by its devices by 57 percent since 2008, as well as the increased efficiency of transporting said products, thanks to smaller packaging—over the lifetime of the iPhone, the company has been able to up the number of units in each airplane shipping container by 60 percent, meaning fewer flights.

Finite resources

Energy’s not the only thing Apple’s using more efficiently. The company’s also trying to make better use of the physical materials from which it constructs its products. In part that simply means making the products smaller, as with the iPad Air—31 percent less material, by weight, than the original iPad—or the current iMac, which has 40 percent less volume than its predecessor. And then there’s the brand new Mac Pro, which Apple says saves a significant 74 percent in aluminum and steel compared to the old cheese-grater model.

But another, and perhaps more important, factor is making sure that its products last longer. Every company wants its products to be durable, of course, but here Apple touts not only the testing of its cables, screens, and buttons, but also the fact that it maintains a long lifetime for its products—to wit, OS X Mavericks runs on Mac hardware going back as far as 2007. And its devices live a lengthy second life by being passed on to friends and family.

apple macpro materials

Apple's new Mac Pro makes impressive strides in reducing the amount of material used in its construction.

The proof, the company says, is in the numbers. Apple takes back not only its own products for recycling, but also those of competitors’, and the company says 90 percent of what it recycles comes from products that it doesn’t make.

Recycling is an important program for Apple, which in 2010 set a goal of recycling 70 percent of the products, by weight, that it made seven years prior. The company says it has “consistently” reached 85 percent, while competitors have languished around 20 percent. In addition, Apple’s also working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to help reduce the amount of material that’s wasted, instead focusing on transforming and reusing it.

Apple’s also dedicated itself to the conservation of water. Its data center in Maiden, NC, for example, reuses water 35 times. In other places, the company has installed smart irrigation systems or used drought-tolerant landscaping in order to reduce how much watering needs to be done. To ensure responsible water usage at its suppliers’ facility, the company established a Clean Water Program to use less water, recycle more of it, and prevent water pollution.

Other notes

Apple products have long been free of some of the worst toxic chemicals used in technology manufacturing—such as arsenic, lead, and mercury. In 2013, the company finished rolling out PVC-free cables for all of its products in China; Apple is still attempting to secure government approval of its PVC replacement in two final countries, India and South Korea.

The company has also committed to making sure that its factories provide safe working conditions for those involved in the manufacturing process; it tests its products in-house, using X-ray fluorescence and ion chromatography.

In addition, as part of improving its supply chain, Apple launched the Supplier Environment, Health, and Safety Academy to make sure that its suppliers are themselves equipped to handle issues relating to environmental safety.

Updated at 5:03 P.M. Eastern to add a statement from Greenpeace.

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