Apple is washing itself green.
The tech company announced Tuesday that it will build its new MacBook Air and Mac Mini computers using “100 percent recycled aluminum.” The move is part of a goal Apple set in 2017 to use only renewable or recycled materials in its products. While shifting to recycled aluminum is a step in the right direction (mining bauxite, the world’s primary aluminum source, is dangerous work and poisons the environment), it’s more of a PR win for Apple than a meaningful victory for the planet.
Aluminum is just about the easiest metal to recycle, and there’s tons of it already on the market. In fact, most of the aluminum Apple uses is probably already recycled, according to Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, which advocates for companies that repair old devices.
The announcement “makes Apple sound noble and sustainable when any manufacturer that needs to buy aluminum is also buying 75 percent recycled content without making any special effort,” Gordon-Byrne says.
Apple says it will collect some recycled aluminum from shavings left over from producing iPads and other hardware. But the company has conspicuously not promised to collect all its recycled aluminum from its own dross, meaning the casing of your next MacBook Air is likely to contain bits of airplane fuselage and old soda cans.
It’s likely that this aluminum would have been purchased by someone else anyway, and it’s hard to see how Apple’s announcement amounts to a significant environmental victory if it’s not creating incentives to dramatically increase the amount of recycled aluminum on the market. The company did not immediately respond to Medium’s request for comment about this.
“Apple has done the math and knows full well that marketing sustainability is much cheaper than actually doing it.”
Buying recycled aluminum is simple, cheap, and probably a good business decision for Apple anyway, according to Kyle Wiens, who advocates for responsible device recycling and serves as CEO of iFixit, a site dedicated to repairing gadgets.
“Aluminum is one of those things that is always recycled,” Wiens says. “It’s way cheaper to recycle aluminum than mine new bauxite ore, so there’s a strong market demand for scrap. Really, this is the lowest hanging fruit on their 100 percent recycled material pledge.”
Apple’s new policy does highlight a real problem though. Mountains of discarded iPhones and tablets litter the globe, fueling a growing environmental crisis that destroys ecosystems and hurts workers, mostly in the global South. The economy generated nearly 50 million tons of e-waste in 2016, and this number is on track to jump 17 percent by 2021, according to a 2017 United Nations-backed report. Full of harmful materials like lead and cadmium, e-waste leaks poisonous chemicals into the soil and water. And it exposes workers in countries like Thailand, which receives heaps of broken devices from the United States, to toxic fumes as they pick through scrap piles looking for rare metals.
Apple isn’t the only tech company contributing to this problem. In fact, the company may generate less e-waste than other tech firms, since Apple users tend to hang onto their products for around four years and can sell old devices back to the company or to third-party retailers for a decent price. But with 1.3 billion active devices worldwide (and countless more in landfills), Apple is still responsible for a huge amount the world’s dangerous electronic junk.
Apple’s business model practically guarantees waste. Rolling out new, updated products and software each year makes perfectly functional tech obsolete and encourages consumers to toss electronics stuffed with heavy metals every few years. Apple’s iOS 12, released last month, doesn’t condemn a generation of iPhones, though recent iterations of the company’s annual software updates have. That’s good, but it’s an exception to the tech industry rule. The auto industry pioneered the annual update back in the 1920s, when it introduced “model years.” This demand-boosting technique is now a staple of growth-based consumer capitalism, especially in tech, whose major players increasingly pass off cosmetic changes as substantive product improvements. Such “planned obsolescence” is one reason Apple and rivals like Samsung, with its unending parade of new Galaxy phones, make so much money.
It is possible to recycle old iPhones and MacBooks, but it’s not clear that many people do. And Apple has made it notoriously difficult to fix aging hardware. For instance, the company uses proprietary screws that make it tough for consumers to tinker with their devices. It has also spent some of its considerable resources lobbying against “right to repair” legislation that would make it easier for third-party shops to fix your gadgets, creating roadblocks for consumers who would rather keep their old devices than buy new ones.
“The single best thing Apple could do to improve their actual impact on the environment is to embrace ‘right to repair,’” Gordon-Byrne said. “I suspect Apple has done the math and knows full well that marketing sustainability is much cheaper than actually doing it.”
There’s another reason to doubt the significance of Apple’s latest announcement: Apple products are still brimming with toxic, tough-to-mine, hard-to-recycle heavy metals like lithium, cobalt, and neodymium. That last metal is very hard to recycle, but there are ways to reuse the first two. And while Apple has announced efforts to recover old cobalt, the company isn’t doing as much as it could. Heavy metals make for particularly nasty e-waste, and buying them from suppliers sometimes means supporting child labor. Indeed, much of the cobalt found in consumer tech comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where child labor is routinely used in mining operations, according to a 2016 report from Amnesty International.
Apple is the most profitable company on earth. If it wants to dramatically reduce its environmental impact, it can. Don’t let the 100 percent aluminum pledge fool you. A company as powerful as Apple can and should be held to a higher standard.
Update: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that iOS 12 was the first of Apple’s annual software updates that doesn’t remove a generation of iPhone hardware from compatibility.