Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Updates on Apple’s Supply Chain for 2019

Apple:

Apple today released its 13th annual Supplier Responsibility Progress Report detailing how the company is expanding educational opportunities and protecting the planet’s resources. As of 2018, 17.3 million supplier employees have been trained on workplace rights, and 3.6 million have received advanced education and skills training. All final assembly sites for iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, AirPods and HomePod are now certified Zero Waste to Landfill, while conserving billions of gallons of water and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

From the report (PDF):

It takes multiple pieces of protective film to cover an Apple product during its journey on the assembly line. Film is placed and removed to help keep products pristine as they come to life. Each piece is small, but it adds up to being a significant portion of the non-recyclable waste generated during assembly.

We set our sights on a solution — finding a new protective film that could be diverted from incineration and, instead, recycled. After conducting research, it became clear that no recyclable protective film was available on the market. This introduced an opportunity for Apple engineering teams to partner closely with a protective film supplier.

The turning point for the project was identifying a combination of adhesive and film that could be recycled together. The result? A cost neutral, recyclable protective film that in its first year of adoption, diverted 895 metric tons of waste from incineration and avoided 1880 metric tons in carbon emissions from Apple manufacturing. Better yet, the film has also been made available by the supplier for other companies to adopt in their manufacturing processes.

Maddie Stone, in Gizmodo’s environmental imprint Earther:

Two years ago, the company announced that it hopes to stop mining the Earth “one day.” Since then, Apple has embarked on a clandestine, multi-front war against waste, finding new sources of materials in everything from manufacturing scrap to dead devices. And by periodically trumpeting small milestones—a robot that can rip apart 200 iPhones an hour; a MacBook Air with a “100 percent recycled aluminum” case — the tech giant reminds the world it’s progressing toward its goal of a mining-free future.

But the truth is that goal remains a distant one. For a company that sells over 200 million smartphones a year, along with millions more tablets and computers, achieving what sustainability wonks call a “circular economy” will amount to a complete overhaul of everything from how Apple devices are manufactured to what we do with those devices at the end of their lives. It will require Apple to develop — or facilitate the development of — groundbreaking new recycling technologies. Perhaps most crucially, Apple will have to make design and policy choices that encourage consumers to upgrade and repair their old devices rather than discard them for the latest model.

The question is whether that’s a future Apple truly wants — or one that its investors will allow.

I completely understand the cynicism here. I haven’t seen another giant tech company — in particular, any other major hardware company — approaching environmental matters in the way Apple has, but I also think there is a valid question to be asked of whether Apple truly is the leader in its field or whether others are making more substantial moves, just more quietly. One would assume that, if another company were an environmental leader, they would want everyone to know. And if Apple wants to be perceived as a leader, their techniques ought to stand up to journalistic scrutiny and questioning.

But there were parts of Stone’s piece that, I feel, are misguided in trying to raise suspicion. For example, regarding the company’s extensive use of aluminum (and please forgive me for quoting at length):

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that Apple’s push to end mining has begun with a focus on reducing one of its biggest sources of manufacturing waste — aluminum. Mining bauxite and smelting it to produce the silvery metal is incredibly energy-intensive, and Apple requires a lot of high-grade aluminum to carve the signature “unibody” cases its computers use. Problematically, the milling machine process it uses also generates a lot of scrap.

So, Apple has started collecting that scrap, melting it down and forming new hunks of aluminum that can be used to carve more gadget husks.

While Apple would not say when exactly it started “recycling” aluminum in this manner, it had crept into the company’s environmental reports by 2016. By 2018, Apple had gotten good enough at saving scraps that it was creating entire product lines out of them. The 2018 MacBook Air and MacMini are the first Apple products to be produced with a “100 percent recycled aluminum” case, using an alloy made of “shavings of recaptured aluminum that are re-engineered down to the atomic level.” This change, along with the use of less aluminum overall, helped cut the carbon footprint of the devices roughly in half, according to Apple.

Critics are quick to point out that Apple is packaging what is essentially a shrewd business decision as a win for the environment.

“Their milling-machine approach to manufacturing is incredibly wasteful, so they’d have to recapture the metal or it wouldn’t be economical,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of the electronics repair company iFixit, said in comments emailed to Earther, adding that aluminum was the “lowest hanging fruit” on Apple’s 100 percent recycling pledge.

I don’t think it’s a surprise that environmentally-savvy moves can also be great for business. Why scrap something when it could be used in the production of another product? Also, Apple has repeatedly stated that one reason they choose aluminum is because it is so easily recyclable. That may mean it’s the “lowest-hanging fruit”, but it isn’t at all unfair for Apple to point out that it’s a critical part of their products’ environmental design.

Basically, Apple made a great decision a long time ago to invest in aluminum because it makes more durable, nicer, and more environmentally-friendly products, and has spent the years since extolling those virtues. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be suspicious of.