Apple's Ambitious Goals for Earth-Friendly Manufacturing

Recycling valuable materials is a top priority for the California-based tech giant.
26 May, 2017
Users who love their iPhone or Mac mini computers probably never think about Liam, but Apple's corporate headquarters certainly does.
Liam is a robot – well, two lines of robots – that disassembles old iPhone 6 models efficiently and then extract the high-quality components from the used devices.

Apple says that Liam can take apart 2.4 million phones per year, and the experiment has been an inspiration in ways to recover more. Currently, for every 100,000 iPhone 6 units, the system can save 1900 kilograms of aluminium, 800 kg of copper, 550 kg of cobalt and lesser amounts of the 3TG minerals (tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold) along with other components.
With the aluminium – and Apple uses lots of it – the company says the material accounts for 29 percent of its carbon footprint. The iPhone 7 was engineered to use 27 percent less new aluminium than the iPhone 6, and the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar achieves 48 percent less greenhouse gas emissions. The company now is focused on recycling its own aluminium, to maintain the high-grade quality they need.

The company also has joined UC RUSAL and other stakeholders in the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative, a global nonprofit organization that sets standards and certifies sustainability performance.
Although Apple is not without its critics, the company has a longstanding commitment to sustainability and is deeply mindful of its industry impact on water resources, in mining and other environmental spheres. To that end, with the launch of its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report, the company announced plans to become so closed-loop in its operations that the mining will be a thing of the past.

The report reflects the work of a team led by Lisa Jackson, Apple's Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, who reports directly to CEO Tim Cook. It explains how normal supply chains work, from extraction to manufacturing to – unhappily – the landfill. What Apple proposes is nothing less than having all products made using only renewable resources and with materials that are entirely recycled.
Apple says it has completed a review of 44 different materials and components, analyzing them from a global and holistic perspective that includes environmental impacts but also human rights violations. Tin was identified as an area where great gains could be made. "We're now using 100 percent recycled tin for the solder in the main logic board of iPhone 6s, and we send iPhone 6 main logic boards recovered by Liam to a recycler who can reclaim the tin in addition to the copper and precious metals." Next will be the experiments on ways to recover cobalt from the lithium-ion batteries and to use recycled cobalt.

Seventeen of the 18 final assembly sites now meet industry certification for Zero-Waste to Landfill, and that program is being extended to 25 suppliers. Since the company wants to end its reliance on mining entirely, it also is encouraging more customers to recycle their old devices through its Apple Renew program.
Image: Max Pixel
Through Apple Renew, the company promises to either refurbish and resell the devices, or otherwise make sure the materials are recycled. It's here that some of the criticisms come into play, though. Some analysts argue that the recycling process is less efficient in recapturing the rare earth minerals than repair and reuse will be.

Organizations including Greenpeace praise Apple's initiative and innovation, but encourage all tech companies to instead build and market devices that are meant to last longer and are easy to repair.