Can apple become a mining company by recycling the iPhone?


Original title: can apple become a mining company by recycling iPhone?
Apple has a factory in Austin, Texas, where the main task of workers is not to produce new devices, but to “destroy” the old iPhones recycled from all over the world.
They are just part of Apple’s recycling program, and Lisa Jackson, the company’s vice president of the environment department, recently told Reuters about future goals, hoping that one day Apple will be able to break away from its dependence on mine mining and achieve self-sufficiency in production.
Where does the mine come from? Nature is extracted from recycled equipment, or with the help of renewable materials to feed their own production.
This basically reaffirmed the vision of “Apple’s circular supply chain”, which first appeared in the 2017 Apple environmental responsibility report, and in the 2018 and 2019 reports, Apple also mentioned the company’s progress on the project.
One of the most important points is the design of recycling process. When aifan’er visited Apple’s Dezhou factory last April, he also reported that many traditional recycling processes have adopted non-standard manual disassembly, which will not only cause pollution, but also lead to the low purity of many metals dissolved in the furnace, which can not meet the requirements of reproduction.
As a result, as early as 2016, Apple announced its own iPhone recycling robot Liam. This is a device with a huge mechanical arm, which can separate parts of the iPhone 6 one by one like “fruit peeling”, and send them to the designated recycling area to reduce the probability of mutual contamination of different types of metals.
By 2018, Apple has also launched an upgraded version of “Daisy” player. Now it has been able to automatically identify 15 iPhone models. On average, it can disassemble up to 200 iPhones per hour. It can also handle materials that cannot be recycled by traditional recycling mechanisms, such as tungsten in the vibrating motor of the iPhone, which further improves the recycling scope and ratio of apple.
On the surface, Apple’s emphasis on recycling obviously takes into account the impact of environmental issues on brand image, and sometimes recycling can also be used as a means to stimulate consumers to change.
For example, in recent years, Apple will put a “trade in” poster on the front page of the official website or in the offline stores to encourage users to sell their old iPhones to apple, so that they can get a new device at a lower price.
But the recycling supply chain, including the recycling process, is still a project with many challenges.
If we can reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption by developing clean energy and optimizing production processes, we need to make more exploration and trade-offs in the use of raw materials so that these discarded electronic equipment can not be wasted and returned to the market in an equal amount, and realize the annual cycle.
Image from: Reuters
At present, Apple has classified and evaluated dozens of elements and raw materials that may be used in the production of equipment. Some of them are indeed recyclable and in great demand, such as tin and aluminum. Apple often sends disassembled components to upstream recycling plants to return the processed raw materials to apple.
But there are also some raw materials, such as rare earth elements, which use a small amount of their own, and traditional institutions can not be technically recycled, so apple can only develop new technologies to solve the problem; as for plastics, Apple will seek new materials to replace them.
After two years of hard work, we do see some of the results Apple has achieved.
Since 2017, Apple has used 100% recycled tin solder on the motherboards of all iPhone, MAC, iPad and other devices, making apple mine nearly 29000 tons of tin ore less in 2019.
In 2018, Apple launched MacBook Air and mac mini models with 100% recycled aluminum body, part of which is recycled from iPhone.
Last year, the vibrating motors in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro series were also made of 100% recycled rare earth elements.
In December 2019, Apple also purchased the first batch of “carbon free aluminum” from two Alcoa corporations and Rio Tinto. In the official introduction, apple stressed that this will bring revolutionary progress to the global aluminum manufacturing industry.
Literally, “carbon free aluminum” can achieve “zero emission” of carbon dioxide when it is produced, which is converted into emission of oxygen, because carbon is replaced by more advanced conductive materials, and the project also benefits from Apple’s investment.
It can be said that when Apple controls the key components of its own products and some metal raw materials can be used in different product lines, Apple has the ability to spend the raw materials and at the same time take them back and use them in a new batch of products.
Tom Butler, chairman of the international mining and metals Council, also believes Apple may be the only company in the industry with the potential to achieve the goal of 100% self-sufficiency.
But that doesn’t mean that other companies can follow suit, because it takes a lot of money.
Image from: EJ insight
Some analysts also said that Apple’s goal of “100% closed-loop” is too idealistic, because the recovery rate of e-waste has been kept at a low level. In addition to those that are randomly discarded and traded, they are more likely to enter the landfill directly after simple treatment.
What’s more, apple can’t recycle all the old iPhones in the market. It’s hard to make up for the production demand of hundreds of millions of iPhones every year just by the current amount of disassembled iPhones. It’s hard for apple to get rid of its dependence on earth’s minerals.

Alex king, director of the Department of energy’s key materials Institute, said:
Recycling aluminum has become a mature field in the industry. The problem is that the rare earth elements, although they are used in a small amount, most institutions are not able to recycle them. You can only get them from mines.
We also mentioned in the previous article that with the increase of various networking devices, many technology enterprises and electric vehicle companies have accelerated their cooperation with the mine to ensure the stable supply of cobalt, the key raw material for lithium battery.
In fact, as long as we haven’t found a suitable substitute for batteries alone, we don’t have to worry about the impact on our business.
In a 2019 article, the dismantling website ifixit also said that for most recyclers, what they need is a “general solution” for electronic product recycling, rather than an expensive robot arm that can only break down 15 iPhones, because it will not bring them substantial economic benefits.
If Apple is really green, it should not only focus on device recycling, but also reduce the difficulty of device maintenance, so that they can be repaired by a third party, so that consumers can use them for a longer time.
This is also a point that people often Tucao Apple products, especially if it is put together with Apple’s environmental protection strategy, there will be a feeling of spear attack.
Image from: Washington Post
In May 2019, onezero had an opportunity to contact Apple’s airpods recycler. Unlike the iPhone, which already has a mature recycling solution, airpods, which are hermetically sealed, have to be opened manually using tools such as pliers, and then the battery and audio driver are removed.
The most important thing is that at present, the profits recovered by airpods can’t cover the cost of recovery. The whole recovery work can only be realized when apple is willing to make up for the loss of the recycler. It only proves the recyclability of this pair of headphones, but obviously it doesn’t have the value of large-scale popularization.
At the end of the day, as a business company with hardware sales as its core, it is unrealistic for apple to spare no effort to encourage users to upgrade and make profits, but to spare no effort to keep the old devices in consumers’ pockets.
But just as it will put personal privacy on the table, for apple, which has a trillion market value, the topic of environmental protection and profitability will always be in a delicate balance.
If there is no commercial success, then it doesn’t have to force itself to face the public and shoulder the social responsibility equivalent to its huge volume; it just brings users better experience products instead of saving the earth, which probably won’t be criticized.
Not every big company will care about “only affect the world, not the earth”.