Last week Apple unveiled the iPad 2, which immediately became the center of a heated debate. No, I’m not talking about how amazing or totally disappointing its specs are; the debate centered around how green the iPad 2 really is.
Some argue that this version is thinner and lighter and therefore it’s not only a better iPad but also a greener one, while others replied that no matter how advanced the iPad 2 is, an upgrade of a device launched less than a year ago cannot be considered green.
So who is right? And is there such thing as a green upgrade?
The iPad 2 includes many improvements over the first iPad model, but when it comes to the iPad’s carbon footprint, two factors are most important - it is 33% thinner than the first iPad and up to 15% lighter. This implies that fewer materials are used in the production process, which is responsible for 58% of the iPad’s carbon footprint, according to the iPad’s environmental report, (which currently refers only to the first model).
Other related components like battery life (10 hours) and restricted substances (free of arsenic, BFRs, mercury and PVC), or accessories such as the 10W USB Power Adapter, which according to Apple “outperforms the stringent requirements of the Energy Star specification for external power supplies” haven’t changed much or at all in the iPad 2.
So although Apple have not yet released the carbon footprint of the iPad2, it is likely to be smaller than the 130 kg CO2e of the first iPad model (Wi-Fi + 3G). My estimation is that we can expect at least 10% improvement on the carbon front.
But even though the iPad 2 may have a smaller carbon footprint, there’s of course the question of less-than-annual upgrades-- can planned obsolescence ever be sustainable? According to estimates, Apple sold nearly 15 million iPads last year. Think about what’s going to happen to all of these iPads and how many of them will end up eventually in a landfill. It can easily be seen as another part of what Annie Leonard calls “our whole unsustainable materials economy” on “The Story of Electronics.”
If you look at the iPad 2 through this prism it’s definitely not green. Neither are most of the upgrades for the devices we use daily. But since I don’t believe our insatiable craving for upgrades or the companies’ rush to shorten the upgrade cycles will change any time soon, let me offer another way to look into it. It might not be perfect from a sustainability point of view, but I think it’s reasonable and realistic and therefore can be a good benchmark for any upgrade, not just this one.
An upgraded device could be valued as a green upgrade if it meets the following three requirements:
1. It includes at least five significant improvements to the previous model.
2. It improves the environmental and social impacts of the previous model by at least 20%.
3. The company releasing the new model sets up a goal of reusing or recycling at least 95% of the old models when replaced with the new model.
Now, let’s see what the verdict would be if we apply these criteria to the iPad 2. The first criterion seems to be within reach – 1. It’s considerably thinner and lighter. 2. New front and rear-facing cameras 3. Smart Cover 4. Two powerful cores in one A5 chip (it means the iPad can do twice the work at once) 5. Up to nine times the graphics performance.
It is still unknown if the iPad 2 will meet the second criterion. We’ll know more when Apple publishes an environmental report for the iPad 2.
The third criterion is where the iPad 2 is certainly failing right now. Apple runs a computer reuse and recycling program and will even give you a gift card for the value of your old computer, but this program doesn’t include the iPad according to Apple’s website. iPad owners have some other options at Best Buy or eBay for example, but we are interested here in Apple’s efforts and right now it looks like they do very little to ensure the reuse and recycling of the first iPad.
My conclusion is that even if the iPad 2 has a smaller carbon footprint comparing to the older version, it still doesn’t meet my benchmark for a ‘green upgrade’ and cannot be regarded as one. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Apple can still change it if they come up with a program that will make sure at least 95% of the old iPads won’t end their life in landfills. It may sounds like a tough mission but after all we’re talking about Apple, right?
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.