Apple Plans to Make Devices Entirely From Recycled Materials

Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Vice:

Apple has one of the most aggressive sustainability and recycling programs in tech, but it still pulls plenty of metals and toxic rare-earth materials out of the ground to make iPhones, iPads, Macbooks and other products.

That’s about to change. The company is set to announce a new, unprecedented goal for the tech industry, “to stop mining the earth altogether.”

The announcement, part of Apple’s 2017 Environment Responsibility Report released Wednesday, will commit the company to making devices entirely from recycled materials such as aluminum, copper, tin, and tungsten. But there’s one hiccup: Apple doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to make that happen.

If they can do this, it’s going to be huge, but it’s a tall order. Jason Koebler’s reporting on Apple’s recycling practices suggests that their desire to one day quit mining raw materials will require a complete rethinking of their current disposal chain:

“Electronics recyclers are filled with heaps of broken iMacs and MacBooks, which due to economics and the requirements of certifications are most often scrapped rather than repaired or sold,” John Bumstead, a refurbisher who sells MacBooks that he salvages and frankensteins together from broken ones that he gets from recyclers that don’t work with Apple, told me.

A document submitted to North Carolina’s Department of Environment Quality in September 2016 shows that Apple’s must-shred policy hasn’t changed in recent years, even as it continues to position itself as a green company: “All of the equipment collected for recycling is manual and mechanically disassembled and shredded. The resulting fractions are sorted into plastics, metals, and glass and sold as stock feed in the manufacturing process.”

On its face, this might not seem so bad: At least these products are getting recycled, right? But in practice, the premature recycling of an iPhone or a MacBook is not ideal. Bumstead still sells computers from 2009 and 2010 for hundreds of dollars to people looking for entry-level laptops.

The saying is “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, and those words are in that order for a reason: recycling is better than creating new raw materials, but not as good as reusing what already exists. Neither of these options are as good as minimizing the consumption of new products altogether.

Obviously, Apple would prefer to sell more products, and many customers love having newer products than hanging onto the same device for five or six years. Improvements to their recycling program ought to have a significant impact on the resources required to create new devices and components. But it seems as though their desire to improve their products’ impact on the environment is contradicted somewhat by their stance against right-to-repair legislation, something Apple VP Lisa Jackson touches on in her interview with Vice:

Jackson also defended Apple’s history of making products that are hard to repair. Allowing customers to repair Apple products themselves “sounds like an easy thing to say,” she said. But “technology is really complex; it is sophisticated to make it work, to ensure that you have security and privacy, [and] that somebody isn’t giving you bad parts.”

Because of this, Apple won’t be taking a “right to repair” approach to meeting its environmental goals. “All those things mean that you want to have certified repairs,” Jackson said. “I think trying to pretend that we can sort of make it easy to repair the product, and that you get the product that you think you’re buying — that you want — isn’t the answer.”

I get the stance Apple is taking, but it seems like there could be a safe middle ground. Right-to-repair legislation might be too broad as it’s currently written, but Apple could allow authorized service centres to repair more components with certified parts instead of performing whole-device swaps. More refurbished devices could be made available to sectors where having the latest products isn’t a primary concern.

I’m optimistic that Apple’s recycling goals can be met in due time. I hope they take a more comprehensive approach to their environmental efforts, however. They’re already showing promising results: their lastest report indicates that each new product emits 97 kilograms of carbon in its lifespan, down from a recent high of 137 kilograms in 2011. But the same report indicates that 77% of the greenhouse gas emissions of a new product come from its manufacturing — something that could be cut more dramatically by reducing or reusing components and products than it can by recycling.

Update: Lisa Jackson appeared on this week’s episode of the Talk Show and dove deeper into Apple’s progress on the environment. It’s a really good episode that highlights the company’s use of sustainable forests, how they reduce and reuse materials on the production line, and Apple’s awesome Earth Day animated shorts.