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Is Apple delivering on its environmental claims?

Is Apple delivering on its environmental claims?

February 12, 2020
Santiago Perez

As electronic waste becomes more of a global problem, Apple, one of the major sellers of smartphones and tablets, has touted its bold strides to improve its environmental footprint

It advertises trade-in allowances to consumers who recycle their old iPhones for newer models, uses recycled materials in products, promises not to use Earth-sourced metals, sends its employees to work in buildings and stores powered by renewable energy.

However, some critics believe the multinational tech’s efforts are incremental and don’t go far enough to make a real difference. Still, others warn that some of its recycling initiatives are headed in the wrong direction. Think repair, they advise, not recycle.

California-based Apple has widely publicized its goal of becoming a ‘closed loop’ manufacturer, making products that no longer use mined materials.

The company’s campaign to improve the circular economy has been helped by its flagship recycling robot named ‘Daisy’. An assortment of rare materials goes into Apple’s smartphones, tablets and other devices. Since 2017, Daisy has been delicately dismantling iPhones to extract their precious minerals for recycling. Located at Apple’s plant in Austin, Texas, Daisy dismantles 200 iPhones an hour and extracts 14 minerals, including gold, nickel, titanium and lithium.

Apple uses recycled tin, cobalt and rare earths in some of its products. Last month, in fact, it took delivery of its first batch of carbon-free aluminum produced by a joint venture between the Rio Tinto mining conglomerate and Alcoa, the aluminum manufacturer. The metal is used in iPhones, iPads, Macs and Apple watches.

Until recently, all precious materials contained in electronic gadgets were mined from the ground using processes that often harmed the environment as well as the workers who mined them and their communities.

Apple aims to end its reliance on mining by keeping materials in circulation. However, its executives note that the mining industry need not be threatened by its moves. “We’re not necessarily competing with the folks who mine,” confirmed Lisa Jackson, Apple’s head of environmental initiatives who ran the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama Administration. “There’s nothing for miners to fear in this development.”

And, as mining analysts have pointed out, demand for materials for electronics is only set to grow as new products grow in popularity.

Still, action is necessary. A United Nations report warns that e-waste is the fastest-growing element of domestic waste globally. Some 50 million metric tons are estimated to be produced this year – and just 20% of that amount will be recycled.

Solutions such as the Daisy recycling robot are admirable, says Kyle Wiens, chief executive of the electronics repair company ‘iFixit’. But he points out that an average electronics recycling facility deals with thousands of different products daily. And Daisy works only on Apple’s newer smartphones, not the iPhone 4 which is likely to reach the end of its life soon.

“The idea that [a recycling plant] has to have a million-dollar robot per product that they’re going to disassemble just doesn’t work,” noted Wien. “It’s not the way recycling works.”

Why not repair? Instead, he believes Apple needs to go further and make it easier for consumers to repair iPhones and other products, not just encourage consumers to recycle them to buy newer phones.

Wein started iFixit when he was a college student and could not find a repair manual for an iPhone. Apple, which churns out new devices and pays consumers to recycle old ones, has been reluctant to license repair outlets, according to Wien.

Overseas, pressure groups are pushing manufacturers to produce repairables. The European Union recently introduced regulations requiring companies to keep spare parts for a certain time. Europe-based manufacturers must make products easy to dismantle and provide technical details for repair professionals. But while these regulations apply to household appliances and televisions, they do not cover laptops, smartphones and tablets.

With climate concerns now at the top of many politicians’ agendas, more changes to industrial processes seem likely to follow – not only in Europe but also in the USA.

This article first appeared on the Toolbox website

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