3 Things Apple Won’t Say About Making iPhones from Recycled Components

Apple has recently stepped up its claims about how it intends to eventually move towards a sustainable production model for its iPhones by using recycled components.

Earlier this year, for example, Apple introduced the concept to “stop mining the earth altogether” for its iPhone production in its “Environmental Responsibility Report.” In that document, Lisa Jackson,Apple’s vice president of environment, policy, and social Initiatives; who reports directly to CEO Tim Cook, wrote Apple was “going deeper to pioneer a closed-loop supply chain, where products are made using only renewable resources or recycled material to reduce the need to mine materials from the earth.”

Recently, Jackson said during a TechCrunch conference that Apple had begun to lower Apple’s footprint by using low-carbon aluminum in its iPhone 8.

In October, Greenpeace commended Apple’s environmental stewardship, giving the smartphone leader an overall grade of “B-” in its  “Guide to “Greener Electronics” report card. Meanwhile, competing smart phone maker Samsung received a “D-” and Huawei, which recently overtook Apple as the world’s second-largest smartphone maker, earned an “F” in the report.  

Apple received most of its accolades from Greenpeace for its plans to rely on renewable energy sources for 100% of its energy needs and for its  “closing the loop” strategy to use more recyclable materials in its iPhones, such as recycled tin and aluminum. 

However, Apple has yet to communicate a timetable  of when it hopes to begin to make iPhones with mostly recyclable parts. The company faces major hurdles before it can, if ever, reach its goals. The task is not impossible, but Apple has not yet communicated publically the real challenges it faces in order to meet its lofty goals.

100% recyclable likely to cost consumers more

Many, possibly most, consumers will gladly pay more for their favorite smartphone if they are convinced the purchase will not negatively affect the environment and offset smartphone production that is otherwise harmful to the planet. But at the same time, Apple is facing the business concern of having to pay more for the procurement of recycled parts, a cost it would likely have to pass on to consumers.

“Any near-term distribution to the existing supply chain would likely impact costs and contribute to a higher price point for consumers, which could compromise Apple's current competitive position, Brent Ladarola, an analyst and vice president, mobile and  wireless communications, for Frost & Sullivan, told EBN.

Apple’s iPhone recycling plan hinges on its supplier  

Apple at some point will obviously have to make a major revamp of its its supply chain to procure mostly recyclable parts —  and that could be the hardest task it faces. Regardless of the chips and components Apple may make in-house,  suppliers hold the keys to Apple’s future success — or failure — of its initiative.

“Apple has set an ambitious and lofty goal here, but the challenge will clearly be convincing Apple's diverse set of component suppliers to adopt and adhere to these ambiguous principles,” Ladarola said.

Only a fraction of Apple iPhones recycled

Apple said earlier this year it has begun to use a line of robots it calls “Liam.” The  robots disassemble iPhone 6s and recover recyclable components from the devices. Already, Apple has begun to assemble Mac mini computers used in its iPhone final assembly facilities with aluminum recovered with its Liam robots from the iPhone 6.

However, the Liam project is in the pilot stage and remains largely a token effort, as Liam robots can only process up to 2.4 million phones a year. Comparatively, Apple sold 41.026 million iPhones in fiscal Q3, ending July 1.

Apple also says its Liam project is just the beginning and is largely intended to be used as a model for a larger recyclable-parts recovery project in the future. Apple also says it hopes its will inspire the rest of the industry to create similar initiatives.

A good start

While Apple is only at the very beginning stages of creating a “closed loop” source of recycled parts for its iPhone production, the initiative nevertheless seems legitimate.

Greenpeace did scold Apple in its “Guide to Green Electronics” for some of its business practices. Greenpeace, for example, said iPhones were designed to encourage consumers to replace the smart phones unnecessarily with newer ones and cited reports about lobbying efforts to prevent iPhone owners from being able to make repairs. But, as described above, Greenpeace applauded Apple’s overall environmental stewardship efforts and its grade of a B- was the second-highest in the ranking of smartphone makers. Dutch OEM Fairphone, which has built its business model on sourcing smart phone parts from ethically responsible suppliers, was the only smartphone maker to earn a “B.” Nobody is achieving top marks yet.

Indeed, Apple is off to a good start. Ladarola outlines the point:

Apple's longer term commitment to embrace a more sustainable approach to business that evaluates both the environmental and societal impacts of practices and products is likely to have a cascading effect across the industry, and could drive a clearer set of standards that defines what truly makes an eco-friendly phone. The challenge will be for Apple to clearly define and enforce specific standards throughout the supply chain, and to create enough incentive for suppliers to adopt these requirements. Apple is currently piloting an assortment of innovative recycling technologies designed not only to enhance existing processes, but also to uncover new techniques for materials in which recycling solutions currently do not exist.

How important are recycled products to customers? What part should electronics OEMs play in getting us further down the road to sustainability? Let us know in the comments section below. 

2 comments on “3 Things Apple Won’t Say About Making iPhones from Recycled Components

  1. MrPhen375
    November 1, 2017

    I think it is a good move to using recycled materials in iPhone, I don't see anything wrong with it.

  2. emmasmith
    September 26, 2018

    Traditional supply chains are linear. Materials are mined, manufactured products, and often end up in landfills after use. We believe our goal should be a closed-loop supply chain, As per this site.  where products are built using only renewable resources or recycled material.

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