Is the Apple iPad Green — and Does it Matter?

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"Is the Apple iPad Green — and Does it Matter?"

The Apple iPad 2 [source AP]

There’s no denying the iPad is a hot item. Apple’s tablet computer, which is primarily used for audio-visual media such as e-books, movies, games, music, the web, and talking live, got an upgrade in March. If it sells like the first iPad, you can expect the figures to reach the tens of millions. But is it an eco-conscious product?  This CAP repost looks at this question.

[Joe Romm:  My family owns an iPad.  I will add comments to this post since the question is trickier than it looks -- you really have to know what the iPad is replacing.  That will vary by user and change over time as application software improves.]

UPDATE:  I’ve added a Featured Comment from Dr. Jon Koomey, Consulting Professor at Stanford University, and a leading expert on the energy impact of electronics and the internet.

Apple sure thinks the product itself is green. They put out an environmental profile of the iPad that cites several features designed to reduce its impact on the planet, including:

  • Mercury-free LED-backlit display
  • Arsenic-free display glass
  • Brominated flame retardant free
  • PVC free (polyvinyl chloride is a common plastic that’s raised health concerns)
  • Recyclable aluminum and glass enclosure
  • Power adapter that outperforms the strictest global energy-efficiency standards

You can at least say the company has made a clear effort to mass produce a high-quality product with attention to the environment and human health.

The manufacturing emissions are where things get tricky. As Ken Silverstein points out in Harper’s, the iPad is made in China. Under a federal emissions program—which Apple has lobbied for and Congress has failed to pass—the company would pay for the 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide it emits every year in its U.S. buildings and domestic operations as well as the 500,000 tons emitted shipping its products. But this pales in comparison to the 3.8 million tons of CO2 emitted from its manufacturing—that’s 81 percent of the company’s total—that would be exempt from the program because they’re belched in China.

The fact that the iPad 2 is being released just a year after the first one also brings up the issue of how fast consumer electronics become obsolete. This should be an environmental concern. Sure, users will recycle their old iPads or maybe resell them when they buy the new one. But not all e-cycling is done legally. And e-waste is still a huge problem worldwide.

[Joe Romm:  As noted, I own an iPad 1.  I have no intention of disposing of it.  It has terrific functionality, and even if we buy an iPad 2, the 1 will continue to be used.]

Plus, as we’ve pointed out in this space before, the constant drive to update new products leads to more consumption of raw materials and more emissions from extracting the materials, manufacturing, and transporting the finished products.

The manufacturers of consumer electronics such as the iPad have little to no incentive to take on the extra effort to make their products usable over the long term. Keeping profits up means they need to keep the consumer buying the latest and greatest products. And to be fair, it’s difficult to design a product with all the features consumers want on the first time out.

Whether the e-reader function of the iPad makes it even greener is an open question.  A NY Times life-cycle analysis finds:

So, how many volumes do you need to read on your e-reader to break even?

With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.

All in all, the most ecologically virtuous way to read a book starts by walking to your local library.

[Joe Romm: That final line by Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris is simply too glib.  How many people get books from the library?  In the comments, Prokaryotes directs us to this May 2011 story, "Amazon sells more ebooks than print books for the first time."

In the case of the iPad, reading a book is only one of many kinds of "dematerialization" the device enables.  It has truly made reading newspapers and magazines user-friendly.  If it means someone unsubscribes to a newspaper or a magazine, well, that is also a big savings.]

These problems will likely not be resolved anytime soon. Consumers should keep up the pressure on companies such as Apple to green their entire supply chain—foreign and domestic—and ask themselves if they really need that extra gadget, and if so, whether they can wait a few months until it’s available on eBay.

– A Center for American Progress cross-post

Joe Romm:   My family’s  iPad is sometimes used in place of a TV by my daughter.  Others I know use it for that purpose.  That is an energy benefit.  And yes, I do think Apple should not make these in coal-intensive China.

Certainly if you own an iPad, it is best to charge it on carbon-free power.  How to do so is discussed here.

Also, rather than simply being a new gadget, albeit one that doesn’t consume much power when it isn’t being used, there is some evidence that these new tablet devices are eating into notebook sales.  I suspect that notebooks are simply too much of a product — and too user unfriendly relative to the iPad — for a great many people.  If this substitution occurs, this would also mitigate the environmental impact of the iPad.

Then we have this story:  “iPad gets approval from FAA to replace paper flight charts and maps.”

So is the iPad itself green as a physical product?  I’m not certain that is the right question.

I am quite certain it is way too early to know how green the iPad is.  But in general I am of the view that user-friendly electronics with high functionality and high likelihood of substitution for other material goods are likely to be more green than not.  I have researched and published studies and reports on this for over a decade.  For a good discussion, see “Debunking the myth of the internet as energy hog, again: How information technology is good for climate” (by Koomey and me).

FEATURED POST: Featured Comment from Stanford’s Jon Koomey:

Some high level stats: Ipad (1 or 2) uses about 3 W when active (perhaps a bit more, this is what Apple lists as the idle power when the device is on). Laptops use 25-30W, typical desktops more like 100-125W when you include the LCD screen. So anything that displaces the higher powered devices leads to substantial energy savings.

This trend has been going on for awhile, with laptops surpassing desktops in sales worldwide for the first time in 2009 (Koomey, Jonathan G., Stephen Berard, Marla Sanchez, and Henry Wong. 2009. Assessing trends in the electrical efficiency of computation over time. Oakland, CA: Analytics Press. August 17. <http://www.intel.com/pressroom/kits/ecotech>). Now the very low powered tablets are poised to eat into both laptop and desktop sales, and that’s a good thing.


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