The Taboo of Production
The conversation of about electronic waste (e-waste) almost without exception, focuses exclusively on what happens after consumers discard their electronics. Framing the conversation that way is actually part of the problem. The primary policy intervention into e-waste flows is an overwhelming emphasis on materials recovery (i.e., recycling) after consumers discard their electronics. The Restart Project and journalist Adam Minter draw attention to the growing carbon footprint of an iconic piece of digital technology: the Apple iPhone. I took a little bit of time to comb through Apple’s own figures to see what the publicly available data might show for this and other Apple products. Apple should be applauded for publishing these data about its products and, full disclosure, as I write this I count 8 Apple products within my physical reach.
What do the data show us? In sum, most (not all) Apple products are becoming more greenhouse gas intensive — and that growth is in the production phase of the technologies. In other words, at least some Apple products are becoming more carbon intensive in manufacturing, even as some of them may be becoming less intensive in the use phase. Let’s take a look [for interactive access to the data, go here].
Assuming Apple’s published data are accurate, by the time the iPhone 6 was introduced in 2014 the carbon dioxide emissions associated with it increased nearly 60 percent. But the rise in total carbon dioxide emissions from the iPhone is only part of the story. Notice what is responsible for the largest share of those carbon emissions (again according to Apple’s own figures): production. So while customer use of the technology as a proportion of total emissions has declined markedly, the contribution of manufacturing has steadily increased. Recycling ‘end-of-life’ phones will do nothing to change the carbon dioxide emitted in manufacturing before consumers even purchased their phones. Indeed, and as the data show, recycling actually adds a small amount to the phone’s total carbon dioxide footprint.
Laptops & Desktops
Here things are better. Carbon dioxide emissions are growing, but only marginally when it comes to the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini lines. The new Mac Pro line has even seen a significant drop in total greenhouse emissions. But again, notice which segment of each product’s life contributes most to the overall carbon dioxide emissions: Production. The only instance where customer use trumps production is with the Mac Pro line in 2009. With the newer 2013 model of Mac Pro production is once again the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. What that means is that solutions to the e-waste problem that focus exclusively on post-consumer recycling will do nothing to reduce waste generated upstream in manufacturing. Those orange bars in the graphs above are the carbon dioxide emitted before you or I even purchase our new machines.
Displays tell a slightly different story. The LED display has increased in total carbon dioxide emissions between 2008 and 2010 (Thunderbolt displays only have one year of data at the time of writing). Displays are the only instance where customer use trumps manufacturing when it comes to responsibility for carbon dioxide emissions.
The data briefly explored above reinforce the arguments made elsewhere on this blog and in key discard studies literature (e.g., Gille, 2007; Lepawsky, 2012; Liboiron, 2013; MacBride, 2012) that waste arising in manufacturing/production is crucial to investigate. When recycling is framed as the solution to waste problems, as it so often is in the case of e-waste, both the problem and the solution are mismatched. Recycling post-consumer commodities will do nothing to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions (or any other wastes) arising during manufacturing, long before we purchase that which we will later throwaway or recycle.