March 21, 2013, 8:43 PM — While technological progress and the environment often seem to be at odds, many tech companies are working hard to lessen the impact their businesses have on the planet. Over the last several years, Apple has released an annual progress report about its environmental status, and this year is no different. On Thursday, the company updated its Apple and the Environment pages with information about the year gone by, and how it's improved on its goals vis-a-vis the environment.
Perhaps the most prominent piece of news from the update is that Apple's data centers are now powered entirely by renewable energy sources--specifically, solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal. The company currently maintains three data centers in Prineville, Oregon; Newark, California; and Maiden, North Carolina. A fourth is planned for Reno, Nevada. The Maiden data center last year saw the completion of the country's largest end user-owned, onsite solar array, producing 42 million kWh of green power; a second array is scheduled to be built nearby this year.
Overall, 75% of the energy used by the company's corporate facilities around the world is now renewable--up from a mere 35% in 2010. Part of those improvements are the result of Apple reducing its energy use by 30%, even as the occupancy of its facilities have increased by more than 12%. The company's goal is to achieve a "net zero" efficiency, using entirely renewable energy and generating zero emissions.
Currently, several of the company's corporate facilities are entirely powered by renewable energy, including its locations in Austin, Texas; Elk Grove, California; Cork, Ireland; Munich Germany; and its corporate headquarters in Cupertino. The company also says that most of its facilities in Australia are also 100% renewable-energy-powered as well.
That energy is acquired via a variety of methods, including the company generating its own where feasible. In many cases, power is purchased through the local grid; in other locations, where that isn't an option, the company instead buys Renewable Energy Credits. Apple also says that it's very thorough about the partners it works with; it "hand-picks" the facilities from which it gets its power, and tends to work with newer projects that provide a better return.
Apple estimates that in 2012 it was responsible for 30.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Only 2%, according to Apple, was directly produced by its facilities, while 98% of the emissions are the result of manufacturing, transportation, use, and recycling of the company's products.
It's worth noting that Apple's greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 were actually up slightly over 2011. The company says, though, that its greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of revenue have decreased by 21.5% since 2008, suggesting that even as Apple produces more goods, it's still managing to mostly lower its emissions.
In terms of the manufacture of its goods, which accounts for 61% of Apple's emissions, the company points out that it's lowered carbon emissions for many of its products, ranging from the Apple TV--which generates just 10% of the emissions that its first incarnation did--to the current 15-inch MacBook Pro--which has been reduced by a somewhat smaller 6% margin over its 2006 counterpart. And, of course, the company touted its long-standing removal of toxic chemicals like PVC, BFRs, mercury, and arsenic from the vast majority of its products.
Apple's products are also themselves more energy efficient, with the Mac mini and Apple TV being particular standouts. Apple says its smallest desktop Mac uses less power than a 13-watt CFL lightbulb, while its set-top box consumes only 2W while streaming HD content--10 times less power than the original model. Overall, Apple claims have reduced by 40% the power consumed by its products over the years since 2008; that's resulted in 43% fewer greenhouse gas emissions by its products' use over the same time period.
Emissions generated by transportation have also been lowered, thanks to smaller packaging that allows for more products to be transported in the same amount of space. And recycling has been improved, with the company exceeding its goal of a 70% recycling rate (that figure is calculated as a percentage of weight of the products that the company sold seven years earlier).
In addition to the aforementioned news about renewable energy, Apple's also helped reduce its carbon footprint by encouraging its employees to commute via more environmentally friendly means. The company provides biodiesel buses which are used by around 1600 of its employees every day, while Apple's shared bike program saw more than 50,000 trips last year. Overall, more than 13,000 of the company's employees took advantage of its more environmentally friendly commuting methods, an increase of 30% over 2011.
Among the other environmental milestones Apple touts having achieved this year include the redesigned iMac, which uses far less material and generates fewer carbon emissions, as well as utilizing some recycled materials; the redesigned AirPort Express, which uses both polymers based on the rapeseed plant as well as recycled materials; and the installation of fuel cells and solar panels at its Cupertino headquarters.
Greenpeace, which has more often than not been critical of Apple over the last several years, reacted largely positively to the latest announcements.
"Apple's announcement shows that it has made real progress in its commitment to lead the way to a clean energy future," Greenpeace senior IT analyst Gary Cook said in a statement. "Apple's increased level of disclosure about its energy sources helps customers know that their iCloud will be powered by clean energy sources, not coal."
But despite Apple's own progress, Cook suggests that Apple needs to do more to use its influence to change policy: "Apple should disclose more details about how it will push utilities and state governments to help it achieve its ambitious goal in all of its data center locations."