At the Paperless Movement, we dream of a paperless future. A future where we are connected, efficient and organized, and at ease with our tasks and the storage of our documents.
To realize this dream, we need technology. The kind of technology we’re now seeing in iPads, smartphones, computers, and the amazing apps and programs that help us organize our lives.
The technology we have access to has so many more functions than a simple pen and paper. Besides taking notes, we can illustrate, research, collaborate, calculate, voice record, and so much more. And to top it all off, we can store our important documents in the cloud, and access them from any device in any location.
But the transition to paperless isn’t complete. Even with these amazing tools of technology, we still use millions of tons of paper every year. This means cutting down millions of trees, polluting the environment through the tree harvesting, transportation, and introducing chemicals into our environment through the paper production process.
Then, in the end, much of the paper we make on a yearly basis ends up in landfills as waste.
The word paperless itself implies that we will use no paper, thereby saving trees which are essential to a healthy planet. But as we’ve seen in the blog post, “Does Going Paperless Help The Environment?” https://www.paperlessmovement.com/blog/does-going-paperless-help-the-environment/ just eliminating paper through the use of tablets and apps isn’t nearly enough.
To quickly recap the main ideas in that article:
- Tree farms have been created to produce wood for making paper. These farms are wisely managed, meaning we aren’t destroying old-growth forests to create paper, and these farms are usable green space that is an active part of our economy. Tree farmers argue that if we eliminate these farms, this land will be sold off and urbanized, eliminating green space and adding more polluting spaces to the environment.But the fact remains that creating paper pollutes the earth, and we throw out millions of tons of paper per year as a waste product.Using paper is messy and inefficient. If we had a clean energy source for producing and using our tech devices, we could save millions of trees per year and tons of landfill waste and pollution.
- On the other side of the issue is the technology we have available that eliminates the need for paper, filing systems, pencil, pens, etc.
These systems give us massive computing power and amazing organization abilities, and so much more. They are the answer to eliminating paper use.
Through digital storage alone, we eliminate the use and storage of paper documents; and discarding them is as simple as pressing “delete”.On the face of it, this sounds ideal, but the production of our devices is actually more polluting than paper production. Hardware production uses heavy metals and plastics and requires fuel to burn to create the energy it takes to make these devices. The manufacturing phase is still mostly powered by coal and other forms of dirty energy in China and Southeast Asia.At this time, the production of the technology we’re relying on to bring our paperless vision to life causes more pollution and harm to the environment, than we are currently causing with our properly managed tree farms for making paper.
What we care about:
The Paperless Movement making the future better than it is today.
How will it happen?
- Through optimizing technology that gives us better time management, amazing features, everything easily organized in one place, accessible from any device, making us more than we could be using only our memory and a paper and pen.
- Through the development of clean energy to supply electricity for the production and use of our IT devices.
As you’ve seen from my blog post and video reviews of note-taking apps and the iPad and Apple Pencil, the “tech” portion of our paperless dream is here. We have the tools we need to go paperless and live an optimized lifestyle.
But point number 2, the clean energy equation, has a long way to go to reach our vision of combining technology and the environment in a harmonious way.
The big Information Technology (IT) companies, like Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft, have lead the way in bringing us the tools we need for a better life. It only makes sense that these companies should also lead the way in developing and using clean energy in the production of these life changing products.
IT companies are on the cutting edge of technological development, but where do they stand when it comes to the materials sourcing and manufacturing of their IT devices? If we are to look to anyone to be the leaders in sustainable product design and innovative manufacturing, it would be the big IT companies. This includes one of the main focuses of the paperless movement, developing and relying on clean energy.
The big companies that produce tech devices are pushing world change, but at what cost?
Do they know they are causing massive pollution by creating these products?
Do they have a grand vision of the future that includes not only advancing technology, but also being pollution-free?
Electronic products are transforming our world for the better, but at what cost?
When we look at the supply chain and manufacturing of smartphones, mobile devices, and PCs, we find procedures that rely on dangerous mining practices, hazardous chemicals, and poorly designed products that can’t be repaired and end up as e-waste.
In the 2017 Guide to Greener Electronics, published by Greenpeace, 3 main areas of impact were highlighted in order to access the performance of the major IT companies in the areas of pollution, green energy, and safe practices:
- Energy: Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through efficiency and renewable energy
- Resource Consumption: Sustainable design and use of recycled materials
- Chemicals: Elimination of hazardous chemicals from both the product itself and manufacturing
By looking at the performance of the major IT companies in these areas, we can see if the trend toward clean energy and responsible materials sourcing is improving or getting worse.
The world IT companies report their statistics on greenhouse gas emissions, chemical use, supply chains, safe work practices, and more.
Some companies are better at regularly updating the public on their progress toward clean energy operations and products, and some are much less transparent.
In the upcoming portions of this article, we’ll highlight the main issues of environmental concern created by the tech industry.
Then we’ll look at the sustainability information that has been released by Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft.
We’ll look at how Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft are addressing the important environmental issues inside their own companies, and in their supply chain, so that we can determine who we want to support with our consumer dollars, and what we can do to help push change to happen faster.
* A note about the resource material for this article. Since not every company provides data on their sustainability practices at steady intervals, most of the data I refer to in this article comes from 2017, when each of the 4 companies (Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft) concurrently published their progress and goals. However, there is some exciting data that comes from 2018 that will also be included. Links to all sources will be placed at the end of this article.
Renewable Energy at Home and in the Supply Chain
Many tech companies have made great progress toward transitioning to renewable energy in their corporate offices, retail offices, and data centers.
This is inspiring and exciting to see.
However, the biggest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for these IT companies comes from the manufacturing phase of their products. Resource extraction and processing, component manufacturing, and assembly, can contribute to as much as 80% of the total greenhouse gas emissions that are created during the lifetime of an electronic device.
According to Greenpeace, “ Upwards of 70 to 80% of the carbon footprint during the lifespan of personal computing devices occurs during manufacturing.”
Most IT companies have based their manufacturing supply chains in Asia. The demand for electronic devices has continued to rise since the 1990s, causing the manufacturers in these countries to increase their use of fossil fuels to meet the demand. This increase in burning fossil fuels has contributed to poor air quality in Asia and has a big negative impact on the environment.
The increase in demand for electronics has created an economic base, providing many jobs for people in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Vietnam. These countries have limited access to clean sources of energy and burn primarily coal to produce the energy needed to fuel the production of electronic devices.
Because IT companies get most of their raw materials and manufacturing from these countries, the goods created are produced using dirty energy.
The reporting of where a company’s supply chain energy footprint is distributed and what portion might come from clean energy, is very poor.
This can be for many reasons: The desire not to share information that doesn’t look good, difficulty in gaining reliable numbers, inability to regulate suppliers, and legal and regulatory frameworks in other countries that limit renewable energy supply options; to name a few.
Companies can create a change in this vital area by setting goals to reduce their supply chain emissions, working with their existing suppliers, or actively partnering with suppliers who are committed to producing renewable energy.
So, how do Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft stack up on renewable energy at home and in their supply chain?
- In 2018, Apple reached their goal of 100% renewable energy use in their offices, stores, and data centers.
- Apple has a goal of helping their suppliers reach 100% renewable energy as well. In 2015, Apple started engaging directly with suppliers to help them reduce their energy use through energy audits and efficiency training. According to their numbers, this program helped save 320,000 metric tons of CO₂e from entering the atmosphere in 2017.
- In 2017, Google matched 100% of the electricity consumption of its operations with renewable energy purchases.
- Google does not directly report their product-related supply chain emissions, leaving these numbers bundled in with their Scope 3 emission report which includes emissions from employee commuting, transportation, distribution, and more. This makes it impossible to compare the footprint of Google suppliers with those of other IT companies.
- Google has committed to helping its suppliers transition to clean energy by launching a program inside Google to help provide suppliers with the tools and expertise they need to develop renewable energy solutions, and teaching suppliers what Google learned on their path to 100% renewables.
- Samsung publishes its GHG emission information on a regular basis. This info is hard to compare to Apple or Google because Samsung also includes the production of TVs, monitors, refrigerators, washers, air conditioners, and printers in these numbers.
- Samsung reports its renewable electricity consumption in 2016 at 182 GWh, which accounts for approximately 1% of its total electricity use.
- Energy consumption in the workplace has risen from 21,073 GWh in 2016 to 23,419 GWh in 2017.
- In their sustainability report, Samsung highlights their efforts to reduce GHG emissions by 70% in the workplace by 2020, and to reach 2.5 million tons in accumulated reduction of GHG emissions in the product use phase by 2020.
- Samsung’s reporting of its supply chain GHG emissions went from 7,942 (1,000tCO2e) in 2015 to N/A in 2016. This doesn’t provide us with a clear picture of what is happening with its supply chain energy footprint. Samsung still fails to publish its list of suppliers.
- Microsoft has voluntarily reported their carbon footprint since 2004.
- Microsoft is making progress from its reported claim of being “carbon neutral” to its ultimate goal of being 100% renewably powered.
- Microsoft is actively working to reduce the energy footprint of its rapidly growing cloud infrastructure by redesigning their data centers using innovative energy technology to reduce energy usage.
- Greenhouse gas emissions from Microsoft’s supply chain increased 20% in 2016.
- Microsoft has not extended its 100% renewable energy commitment to include its supply chain, but report that they, “are working with our suppliers to encourage them to report—then reduce—their emissions”.
Responsible Use of Resources
Technology devices use large amounts of non-renewable resources. According to Greenpeace, “miners must dig through more than 30 kilos of rock to obtain the 100 or so grams of minerals used in a smartphone.”
Mining operations to reach these minerals can be risky and poorly managed. Companies are challenged to ensure workers’ health and safety, while making sure not to support those operations that use child labor. IT companies must be diligent in protecting human rights and workplace safety.
In addition to monitoring their suppliers for safe workplace operations, IT companies can look at ways to reuse the minerals that have already been made into electronic devices.
This would cause less pollution, less risk for workers, and less damage to the earth from mining operations, thereby preserving some of these minerals to be used again.This “closed-loop” form of production—where products are made using recycled or renewable materials only—starts the lifecycle of a smartphone using reclaimed materials, instead of mining for those materials.
There are two ways that IT brands can encourage this closed-loop production:
- IT brands need to design products that allow for easy recycling. Devices can be designed in a way that allows them to be easily disassembled and broken down into their basic components.
- IT brands need a “take back” program, where consumers can turn in their old hardware and know it will be used in new components in the future.
Billions of electronic devices are being made, sold, and discarded every year. When an electronic device is thrown into a landfill, it contains precious reusable materials and dangerous chemicals that can leach into the soil and groundwater.
It was estimated that e-waste volumes would reach 65.4 million metric tons in 2017.
This steady flow of e-waste is made worse by unsustainable product design.
When a company is faced with a saturated market, one strategy they use to keep sales up is referred to as planned obsolescence.
Products are designed in a way that makes repairs or servicing nearly impossible, thus reducing the overall lifespan of the product, and the need to purchase again sooner.
Electronics brands need to build durable products that are serviceable and upgradable. This would drastically eliminate the e-waste we are seeing in the electronics sector.
So, how do Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft stack up on responsible use of resources?
- Apple has set a long-term goal of a closed-loop supply chain, which would eliminate the need to rely on mining for new minerals.
- The company has created Material Impact Profiles for 45 elements and raw materials commonly used in consumer electronics to use as a guide for prioritizing where to start and to measure their progress.
- The design of Apple’s latest devices make them nearly impossible to repair or upgrade.
- Apple has an established take-back system through its stores and local partners.
- Apple’s Daisy robot can take apart up to 200 iPhone devices per hour and safely remove and sort components, allowing Apple to recover higher levels of materials than are recovered by the traditional “shredding” method.
- Apple has been listed among the companies who oppose the “Right to Repair” legislation in several US states. According to repair.org, (https://repair.org/standards) Apple has worked to block attempts to set stronger environmental standards for electronics that support device designs that are easier to repair, upgrade, and disassemble for recycling.
- Google doesn’t provide useful information to establish a baseline on the amounts of material resources that are currently being used in Google’s devices, limiting the ability to set meaningful benchmarks and goals.
- Google supports a circular economy within its operations for things like its data centers and in its furnishings, but hasn’t declared any measurable commitments to transition its hardware products to a closed-loop supply chain.
- Google offers a free mail-back service for recycling purposes.
- Google’s Nest Thermostat E, Google Home, and Chromecast all contain parts with 20%–75% post-consumer recycled plastic content.
- The design of Google’s Pixel is above average in the industry in terms of ease of disassembly at end of life. They use non-proprietary screws and modular parts that make this possible.
- In 2017, over 2.1 million components were wiped clean and resold into secondary markets.
- Google is a member of ITI, which has been lobbying to block “Right to Repair” legislation in several US states.
- Samsung has been tracking and reporting its use of recycled plastics since 2014 for monitors, printers, refrigerators, and ear-phone cases.
- Samsung has not laid out measurable goals for reduction of resource consumption through extending product life spans or using increasing amounts of recycled inputs.
- The company has publicly committed “to collect 3.8 million tons of equipment by 2020”, but they have not outlined details of whether these electronics will be used in closed-loop production.
- In 2016, Samsung used 30,849 tons of recycled plastic across its product lines, representing 5% of total plastic used.
- Samsung offers take-back services in 60 countries. They also have a policy for their recycling partners to not export electronic waste to developing countries.
- Samsung’s recent phones (the S8, S7, and S7 edge) are held together with a lot of adhesive. This makes repairs very difficult.
- The S8, S7, and S7 edge feature an SD card slot that allows consumers to upgrade memory without buying a whole new phone.
- Samsung is a member of ITI, which lobbies against “Right to Repair” legislation in the US.
- On their website, Microsoft commits to reduce overall resource consumption through end-of-life- practices, and the use of recycled metals, to name a few, but none of these objectives have measurable numbers or timeframes.
- Microsoft reports using recycled metals and plastics in its devices, but they don’t provide details on how much or which devices.
- Microsoft offers take-back services for devices, batteries, and packaging. They don’t export e-waste to other countries.
- At this time, Microsoft’s products are difficult to repair, and have non-upgradable storage. The excessive amount of adhesive used makes disassembly for recycling time intensive and expensive.
- Microsoft’s is a member of ITI, which lobbies against Right to Repair legislation in the US.
Chemical use in the production of electronics is twofold: Chemicals are used in the manufacturing process by suppliers, and hazardous chemicals are also housed inside of personal devices.
This makes a closed-loop production scheme more difficult because workers, and the environment, are exposed to dangerous chemicals in the first place, and then they can be exposed to those same chemicals again at the time of disassembly during the recycling process.
Some of these chemicals include, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which can release toxic substance precursors into humans and the environment. One of the most frightening ways these chemicals enter the environment is through high heat by incineration that is commonly used in informal recycling in the developing world. This releases airborne dioxins into the atmosphere. These substances are known to collect and increase over time, causing a growing problem the longer they are used.
Other examples of hazardous chemicals commonly used in electronics are:
Phthalates which are used as softeners for PVC and are known to migrate out of plastics over time. These hormone disruptors have the potential to cause reproductive issues among other possible hormonal problems.
Antimony trioxide and Beryllium can be released as dust or fumes during processing and recycling. Antimony trioxide can lead to severe skin problems, and Beryllium can lead to an incurable lung disease called chronic beryllium disease (CBD).
This is just a small sampling of the chemicals used in electronic devices.
Other chemicals like degreasers and solvents can be used in the manufacturing phase, causing potential risk to the workers, but they don’t end up in the final product.
Every toxic or hazardous chemical used in the life cycle of electronics needs to be identified and eliminated.
While an electronics brand should be able to identify the chemicals they use inside their personal devices, it is more difficult (but not impossible) for them to know with certainty what chemicals their suppliers are using. This lack of firsthand knowledge can cause the cycle of hazard chemical use and exposure to continue unchecked.
In order to transition from hazardous chemical use to safer alternatives, companies need to establish a list of the hazardous chemicals currently used in their products and by their suppliers.
They can then use this list to determine the most essential place to focus their efforts, and use the list to measure their progress.
It is also important for these IT companies to publish their goals and progress regarding phasing out these chemicals to gain the confidence of the public, and to inspire other companies to do the same.
So, how do Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft stack up on eliminating the use of hazardous chemicals in their products?
- Apple publishes an individual product report that details which hazardous materials are in the product.
- Apple publishes its restricted substances list for products (PRSL),and also published a list of substances restricted for manufacturing uses (MRSL).
- Apple publishes a list of its top 200 manufacturing suppliers. They also publish the results of their supplier audits on a semi-annual basis.
- Apple has eliminated PVC and BFRs from its new products.
- Apple has eliminated beryllium, antimony trioxide, and phthalates, and restricted the use of benzene, n-hexane, toluene, and chlorinated organic compounds from manufacturing.
- Google audits suppliers for their use and management of hazardous chemicals during the manufacturing process.
- Google reports on its supplier audit program and what measures it has undertaken to address non-compliance issues, but does not publish its list of suppliers.
- Google requires its suppliers to perform an assessment to determine their use of chemicals and possible alternatives.
- Google’s recently published Restricted Substances Specification shows that BFRs and PVCs have been prohibited for use in all materials.
- Google has restricted the use of antimony trioxide, beryllium, phthalates, benzene, n-hexane, and toluene.
- Samsung publishes its PRSL which includes threshold details, but does not publish its MRSL.
- Samsung conducts supply chain code of conduct audits annually, and published the findings. They do not publish a list of their suppliers.
- Samsung has eliminated BFRs in new mobile phones and notebooks, and power cords, adapters, and accessories.
- Samsung has eliminated PVC from new mobile phones and notebooks, with power cords and adapters for notebooks listed as “excluded”.
- Samsung reports a target to ban benzene and n-hexane in the manufacturing process of suppliers.
- Continues to make progress, since 2013, in eliminating antimony and some phthalates out of mobile devices and notebooks.
- Microsoft does publish a list of its top 100 suppliers; only the supplier name is provided.
- Microsoft publishes its Packaging Restricted Substance List (PRSL) and its Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL).
- Microsoft has not yet phased out PVC and BFRs, and does not publish a timeline for phasing PVC, BFRs, beryllium, antimony trioxide, and phthalates; but the use of BFR is restricted.
- Microsoft has banned benzene and n-hexane, and has restricted the use of toluene, methanol and VOCs.
- Microsoft has established a Supplier Code of Conduct which encourages suppliers to, “identify the chemicals or other materials being released that pose a threat to the environment and manage them appropriately to ensure their safe handling, movement, storage, use, recycling, or reuse and disposal.”
The fact is, producing the electronic devices we’ve come to depend on is a disruptive and polluting process.
Because IT companies have such a massive influence on the world, they are in a position to push the creation and use of clean energy to the forefront of manufacturing.
There are hundreds of IT companies in the world who contribute to the energy and pollution problem.
We have focused on just four.
Each company is a different size, has different product lines, and they report their metrics differently. Sometimes they use ambiguous language to describe their metrics, and some don’t share certain metrics at all.
Given all of these differences, it has been difficult to compare the progress they’re making by comparing them to each other.
In the end, the best we can do is look at their data and ask:
Are they aware of the areas in their supply chain production that need improving?
Do they have publicly stated goals?
Do they openly share their data?
Are they making solid improvements?
Even if we can’t compare them straight across, we can answer these questions and see whether a company is committed to the environment, or not.
After we’ve learned about the environmental practices of the IT companies we buy from, what can we do to inspire them to adopt clean energy practices?
How can we make a difference?
- Know a company’s earth-friendly statistics
- Choose well-made, long-lasting, repairable products
- Don’t be so quick to upgrade—hold on to your device as long as it works
- When you must replace, make sure you recycle your old device
- Let brands know you want devices designed with our planet in mind
- If you can’t find a way to properly recycle your device, send the company an email
- Stay up to date on the latest reports on environmental standards by big companies
- Talk about it on your social media
- Sign the Greenpeace petition to end planned obsolescence https://www.rethink-it.org/
- Join the Paperless Movement Facebook group
GoogelSearch: Microsoft_2017_Environmental_Data_Factsheet%20(1).pdf, Microsoft-Top-100-Production-Suppliers-FY18.pdf, Microsoft-Supplier-Code-of-Conduct_English.pdf