Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the iPhone 6
Photo by Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
By Benjamin Snyder
September 10, 2014

Apple’s two-hour long event on Tuesday focused on the iPhone 6, the Watch, Apple Pay and, yes, even U2. But for a few seconds, the environment also got a nod (emphasis on a few). Which brings up the question, just how committed to the environment is Apple?

Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, took to the stage and detailed the latest features of iOS 8 including new notifications and Touch ID, which lets users make payments. He then launched into a drastically different topic.

Instead of battery life or cost, Schiller spoke about the phone’s environmental impact. “The team worked so hard to make these in the most environmentally-friendly way,” Schiller said vaguely, as way of introduction. The following slide popped up, too, complete with green checkmarks to ensure that everyone watching understood Apple’s commitment to sustainability:

 

“We always like to call attention to this because it matters a lot,” Schiller said. “Not only do you see the new things you’re used to seeing here, there’s a new one as well,”

The latest feature? No beryllium in the phone.

Beryllium, which is widely used in electronics for its light weight, strength and heat and electrical conductivity, is a carcinogen, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Want to know more from Apple about the change? Well, time was up almost before it even began.

Apple’s brief mention of the environment came weeks after the company banned two toxic chemicals, benzene and n-hexane, from product assembly, which had put 500,000 factory workers in danger, according to the Associated Press. The decision followed five months of campaigning by China Labor Watch and Green America. While benzene is a carcinogen, n-hexane is associated with causing nerve damage.

Making electronics is impossible without using metals and chemicals that are dangerous to the environment. The supply chain and manufacturing requires a huge amount of energy, fumes and exhaust. Apple emphasizes that it does what it can to control the quantity and types of materials used, makes devices as energy efficient as possible and helps with recycling. But, of course, there’s only so much it can do.

An iPhone 4s, for example, accounts for 55 kilos of greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime, which includes the manufacturing process and charging by customers who buy them. Apple also uses an enormous amount of energy to power its data centers.

“While we’re proud of the progress we’ve made, we know we can still do better,” the company says about environmental responsibility on its website. “It won’t all happen overnight.”

Grist, a website offering environmental news, posted a round-up of tweets focused on Apple’s latest environmental offering.

Interestingly, after announcing the beryllium-free phones, Schiller talked about, what else? The new leather cases that come with the iPhone 6. Animal rights advocates were far less enthused than Apple fans. According to PETA, producing leather and raising the cows from which its made uses “requires huge amounts of feed, pastureland, water, and fossil fuels.” All of that contributes to pollution and environmental damage.

But to Apple’s credit, the company does put out product reports for each of its offerings. Expect one for the iPhone 6 to be available in the not-so-distant future, too.

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