There are 118 elements on the periodic table. An iPhone contains about 75 of them.
We don’t have an exact number because Apple wouldn’t provide one, which is going to be a theme of this story. And while some of those elements, like aluminum and lithium, are familiar in both name and function, others, like neodymium and gallium, are as exotic as the food additives at the bottom of a microwave dinner’s nutritional label. The metallurgical marvel inside your pocket wouldn’t exist without the entire ingredient list.
But the existence of devices like the iPhone has come at a price. All of the metals inside one—recognizable or foreign, precious or pedestrian—hail from rocks that were mined from the Earth, often, using environmentally-destructive processes and ethically-fraught labor practices. Now, Apple is hoping to change that.
Two years ago, the company announced that it hopes to stop mining the Earth “one day.” Since then, Apple has embarked on a clandestine, multi-front war against waste, finding new sources of materials in everything from manufacturing scrap to dead devices. And by periodically trumpeting small milestones—a robot that can rip apart 200 iPhones an hour; a MacBook Air with a “100 percent recycled aluminum” case—the tech giant reminds the world it’s progressing toward its goal of a mining-free future.
But the truth is that goal remains a distant one. For a company that sells over 200 million smartphones a year, along with millions more tablets and computers, achieving what sustainability wonks call a “circular economy” will amount to a complete overhaul of everything from how Apple devices are manufactured to what we do with those devices at the end of their lives. It will require Apple to develop—or facilitate the development of—groundbreaking new recycling technologies. Perhaps most crucially, Apple will have to make design and policy choices that encourage consumers to upgrade and repair their old devices rather than discard them for the latest model.
The question is whether that’s a future Apple truly wants—or one that its investors will allow.
Josh Lepawsky, a geographer at Memorial University of Newfoundland, studies the environmental lives of our electronics. He describes holding a smartphone in your hand as like holding a world in miniature.
Consider just a few of the ingredients in an iPhone and you’ll start to see why. The aluminum that Apple’s legendary milling machines carve into sturdy, space gray casings comes from bauxite, a rusty, sedimentary rock crumbled into soils across Earth’s tropical belt. The cobalt that serves as the cathode inside a smartphone’s lithium-ion battery is harvested from shales and sandstones in the economically-impoverished yet mineralogically-flush Democratic Republic of Congo. The rare earths—elements with tongue-twisting names and odd electron arrangements that cause screens to sparkle and give and strength to the magnets found inside speakers—hail primarily from Inner Mongolia and southern China. The list goes on and on: tungsten, tantalum, copper, tin, gold, silver, palladium, and more; a veritable United Nations of geological wonders representing nearly every continent on Earth.
Before all those ingredients can be assembled together in one highly-functional, hand-held rectangle, they must be extracted from ores using hands, shovels and hammers, heavy machinery, and explosives. Those ores are then smelted and refined into metals with desirable properties, before being molded, cut, screwed, glued, and soldered into products that get stuffed into packages and shipped worldwide for sale. Every step in this production process requires energy, and in our fossil fuel-powered world, that means dumping climate-warming carbon dioxide into the air. All told, Apple estimates that 77 percent of its carbon footprint comes from manufacturing. That’s not unusual for the industry.
“The vast amount of waste from electronics occurs in the manufacturing process,” Lepawsky said, noting that it’s not just carbon emissions that need to be considered, but a slew of toxic byproducts generated during the mining and refining of metals.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that Apple’s push to end mining has begun with a focus on reducing one of its biggest sources of manufacturing waste—aluminum. Mining bauxite and smelting it to produce the silvery metal is incredibly energy-intensive, and Apple requires a lot of high-grade aluminum to carve the signature “unibody” cases its computers use. Problematically, the milling machine process it uses also generates a lot of scrap.
So, Apple has started collecting that scrap, melting it down and forming new hunks of aluminum that can be used to carve more gadget husks.
While Apple would not say when exactly it started “recycling” aluminum in this manner, it had crept into the company’s environmental reports by 2016. By 2018, Apple had gotten good enough at saving scraps that it was creating entire product lines out of them. The 2018 MacBook Air and MacMini are the first Apple products to be produced with a “100 percent recycled aluminum” case, using an alloy made of “shavings of recaptured aluminum that are re-engineered down to the atomic level.” This change, along with the use of less aluminum overall, helped cut the carbon footprint of the devices roughly in half, according to Apple.
Critics are quick to point out that Apple is packaging what is essentially a shrewd business decision as a win for the environment.
“Their milling-machine approach to manufacturing is incredibly wasteful, so they’d have to recapture the metal or it wouldn’t be economical,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of the electronics repair company iFixit, said in comments emailed to Earther, adding that aluminum was the “lowest hanging fruit” on Apple’s 100 percent recycling pledge.
Wiens pointed out that melting all of those shavings back down into a new aluminum bricks takes energy, too; energy that could perhaps be saved by using a different manufacturing process to begin with. Apple told Earther the energy used to melt and reform aluminum from scrap is about 5 percent of what’s required to smelt virgin aluminum in the first place.
Others agreed that aluminum recycling is easy money. Christian Remy, a human-computer interaction researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark, called the metal “as close to the perfect recycled material as possible” while adding that as long as we’re dependent on fossil fuel energy, recycling it “raises other concerns.” Remy said switching to alternative materials could make a much bigger dent in Apple’s carbon emissions.
Several industry experts said Apple was likely buying recycled aluminum on the market before it started making noise about its scrap-recovery efforts. Alex King, the former and founding director of the Department of Energy-funded Critical Materials Institute (CMI), told Earther that the aluminum produced for sale in the U.S. today is predominately old and new scrap. “It’s a good bet if you buy aluminum, a large amount [is recycled],” he said. Apple wouldn’t comment on this claim.
Some experts took a more optimistic view of the company’s efforts to reduce its waste. Lepawsky said Apple attempting to make its own manufacturing process more efficient is “really significant.”
“It means they are probably pulling back into the production stream volumes of material that are way bigger than you can get from post-consumer recycling,” he said. “That’s good.”
“You want to start where you can make some momentum,” Scott Vaughan, former president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, told Earther. “I wouldn’t view that as a fault.”
But whether you see it as clever marketing, a genuine push toward sustainability, or a little bit of both, one thing’s clear: sweeping shavings off the factory floors can’t support all of Apple’s material needs. To move closer to a mining-free future, Apple need to start reclaiming its dead.
In a factory in Austin, Texas, a 30-foot-long line of robotic arms pries apart nine different versions of the iPhone. Daisy, the smartphone recycling system Apple announced to the world last April, is arguably the perfect distillation of Silicon Valley-brand environmentalism: a clever engineering answer to a wickedly complex problem. Something that’s cool to look at, but whose environmental value is, seemingly by design, difficult to determine. And yet, if Apple is serious about ending mining, this Rube Goldberg-esque jungle of robotic arms and conveyor belts would seem to be a central part of the company’s plan.
Few outside of Apple have ever seen a Daisy up close—the company has a second version installed in the Netherlands—but Apple says these robots can disassemble 200 iPhones every hour. As the phones are ripped part, their components are directed into a series of bins depending on the material Apple hopes to recover.
The idea is that each of those bins represents a stash of ore—aluminum-rich cases; rare earth magnets; lithium cobalt batteries—that Apple can find a second life for, either on a ‘short loop’ where the material goes right back into the company’s manufacturing, or on a ‘long loop’ where it goes to a recycling market anybody can source from.
As an example of short-loop recycling, Apple told Earther that Daisy separates aluminum enclosures from other metals and sorts aluminum by grade, steps that allow an enclosure to go straight back into production. As a proof-of-concept of the long loop, Apple is sending the logic boards of phones collected by Daisy off to recycling partners, who are stripping the tin—and in some cases, copper and precious metals—and feeding it back into a general recycling market. Sourcing from that market, Apple now specifies 100 percent recycled tin on the logic boards of several iPhone models and computers.
But this tin represents a small fraction of the material Daisy collects, and there’s already an established recycling system for Apple to work within. Aluminum, as already noted, is quite recyclable too. The question of what happens to some of the more unusual ingredients in an iPhone remains open.
Take the rare earths. Today, less than one percent of these metals are recycled, due to the twofold challenge of collecting enough spent electronics to make recycling worthwhile—individual devices contain vanishingly small quantities of them—and getting the metals back out.
In theory, a recycling robot that can quickly stockpile large quantities of rare earth-rich parts might be able to overcome first challenge—if you know where your rare earth magnets are and retrieve them as Daisy can do, the you might soon find yourself sitting on a small mine. From there, one option is the short-loop: integrating rare-earth rich parts directly into new products. But Apple is constantly iterating its product design, which might require tweaks to the rare earth magnet recipe. In that case, the metals may have to be extracted out and funneled through a longer recycling loop before they can be re-used.
And when it comes to extracting rare earths from technology in a way that makes recycling economical, the fundamental chemistry still needs a lot of work, according to University of Pennsylvania chemist Eric Schelter, whose lab is focused on this very problem.
“The science and engineering is not at the place to support Apple at that goal without having a $5,000 iPhone,” Schelter told Earther. He was speaking facetiously, but the point is clear: a brand-new iPhone X currently runs between $450-700 with a trade-in.
That’s not to say the science won’t get there. Several research consortia are working on the rare earth recycling challenge, including the Critical Materials Institute, which recently won an R&D 100 award for devising a recovery method that doesn’t involve the production of hazardous acid waste, something King called a “major achievement.” (It’s also a reminder that recycling can be a dirty business, too.) In its latest environmental report, Apple says it’s “investing in new technologies” to recover rare earths, but declined to offer additional details.
There’s also cobalt, a high priority metal for recycling given its critical role in lithium ion batteries, which are set to skyrocket in demand as the electric vehicle and clean energy markets boom. As with rare earths, lithium ion battery recycling is in its infancy, but rare metals experts see this as an area with a lot of potential for growth. New battery recycling efforts have recently cropped up in Australia, the U.S., and China, where one recycler is already producing “more cobalt than the country mines in one year,” according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum.
Similar to aluminum, Apple says it’s looking into recovering cobalt-containing battery scrap, and that it’s thinking about what to do with batteries at the ends of their lives, too.
“If they [Apple] can find a way to recycle batteries in a way that’s more cost effective, that doesn’t just help Apple, that helps everyone,” David Abraham, a senior fellow at New America told Earther, emphasizing that it’s going to take investments in basic science before an industrial-scale recycling infrastructure emerges.
Jonathan Eckart, project lead at the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance which launched in 2017 to address sustainability challenges across the battery industry, flagged the simple act of collecting enough devices as a key challenge holding smartphone battery recycling back. As with rare earths, Apple could potentially overcome this challenge with the likes of Daisy—assuming large enough numbers of dead phones are making their way to robotic recyclers for disassembly.
Which leads to the bigger question lurking behind all of these hypothetical schemes: How many devices is Daisy actually ripping apart?
We simply don’t know. While Apple told Earther both versions of Daisy are “in operation mode and taking apart phones”, the company wouldn’t say how many phones the robots have processed, or even how many it receives back through consumer trade-in programs like Apple GiveBack.
What’s clear is that the recycling milestones Apple so keenly highlights represent just a bite of its total material consumption, meaning all of this will have to be scaled up enormously in order to end its reliance on mined metals. Popular Science reported last year that Apple will be licensing the Daisy technology to others. When will that happen? Will Apple extend the robotic recycling concept to other types of devices?
Apple wouldn’t say. Asked whether it had a date in mind for closing the loop on any one metal, the company simply said “as soon as possible.”
On a chilly December afternoon, Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, sat before a packed auditorium of Earth and environmental scientists at the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. She had just finished giving a keynote address about the company’s environmental initiatives, and then-AGU president Eric Davidson was asking her about environmental and human rights issues related to mining as part of a follow-up Q&A.
Jackson touted Apple’s supply chain auditing program before saying the quiet part loud. “One of the frustrations we have is that you can only do so much to try to ascertain the truth if you’re working against monetary interests, like corruption or fraud, or political pressure for economic development,” she said, before pivoting back to recycling as a way to “disrupt the current system.”
Jackson is right that it may be impossible for a company of Apple’s size to stamp out all abuses everywhere in its supply chain. But recycling isn’t a perfect solution. Extracting ore from electronics produces dangerous waste products. If done without proper oversight, it can expose workers and their families to a host of toxic substances, according to a recent report on e-waste. That report notes that much of today’s e-waste recycling is done in the developing world by “informal” workers, including children.
“Just because something’s being recycled, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s automatically conflict free,” Clare Church, a researcher at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, who’s working on a scoping paper that addresses potential abuses in the recycling supply chain, told Earther.
Recycling also takes energy, which means more planet-warming carbon emissions, and today it’s basically impossible to extract all the metals that went into a phone. It’s with all of this in mind that advocates for sustainable electronics describe recycling as the end of a long road. Devices should be built to last as long as possible before they get to that point.
“Recycling is the last stage of a circular economy,” Laura Gerritsen, who works in value chain at social enterprise company FairPhone, told Earther. “Before that, you have use, reuse [and] repair.”
Apple’s environmental team is well aware of this, as Jackson’s remarks at AGU made clear. “We’re also really invested in the idea that our products last a long time,” Jackson told Davidson during the Q&A, adding that free upgrades “can make your current iPhone feel like the latest model.”
And yet of all the fronts in Apple’s push toward material efficiency, this is the one where the company’s actions are least aligned with its words.
“They’re missing some obvious ways to reduce overall resource consumption in the way they design their products,” Liz Jardim, Senior Corporate Campaigner at Greenpeace, told Earther.
Apple’s predilection for sleek, svelte devices whose parts are soldered and glued into place before being fastened together with proprietary screws has long made basic repairs like swapping out a broken screen or replacing a dead battery a headache. While these design choices are driven in part by consumers—our demand for thinner, more water resistant phones has led to phones that are more difficult to take apart—Apple is also pretty clear on the fact that it doesn’t want us messing around beneath the hood of its products, as evidenced by the company’s longstanding opposition to right to repair laws, which would allow consumers to take their devices to independent stores for upgrades and fixes.
Those same design choices also make it difficult for anyone lacking a half dozen robotic arms to tear apart an iPhone when it finally reaches its expiration date. As National Center for Electronics Recycling executive director Jason Linnell explained to Earther, most U.S. e-waste recyclers are still primarily receiving CRT TVs and other bulky, pre-smartphone-era devices. Many aren’t geared toward the precision work needed to deconstruct a phone or tablet, and devices that are difficult to take apart by design—and that can potentially explode during the process—might simply not be worth the time and effort.
For Apple, this may be a feature rather than a bug: Documents obtained by Motherboard in 2017 revealed that the company requires its recycling partners to shred iPhones and MacBooks so that their components cannot be reused, further reducing the value recyclers can get out.
When asked for comment on these policies, Apple pointed us toward public websites detailing its repair services and GiveBack program. Asked how the company reconciles its design and policy choices around repair with the need to reduce its overall material consumption in order to end mining, Apple sent us a list of public statements by Jackson emphasizing the company’s commitment to long-lasting products.
Apple has thrown a few bones to the repair community of late. Its 2018 MacBook Air includes more modular and repair-friendly components, while the new MacMini’s RAM is upgradeable after purchase (with some difficulty), unlike the 2014 version where the RAM was soldered in.
But even small concessions like this can come at a cost to the company, raising the question of how far Apple will be willing to go. As CEO Tim Cook revealed in a letter to investors in January, Apple’s decision to cut its battery replacement fee from $79 to $29 in 2017—an apology for throttling older iPhones—likely contributed to billions of dollars of lost company revenue in the first quarter of 2019. In other words, when people held onto their old devices for longer, they bought fewer new ones.
And yet that’s exactly the sort of thing that needs to be happening more often for a mining-free future to ever materialize. “It’s difficult to imagine how a company could meet their demands for putting new products on the market without slowing down the total throughput of their products going to market,” Lepawsky said.
Of course, Apple is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. No other major electronics company has set a public goal of ending mining, even one as nebulous as Apple’s. Earther reached out to HP, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung and Huawei for comment on whether they would consider making such a commitment. As of publication, only HP responded, with a link to its 2017 Sustainable Impact Report that describes its recycling initiatives.
Ultimately, whether Apple can, as Jackson puts it, “disrupt” the current extractive system will depend on whether other major players in the electronics industry follow suit. And that may hinge on the company that fashions itself a thought-leader in personal electronics demonstrating that the price-tag for its latest gambit isn’t prohibitively high.
Remy of Aarhus University is cautiously optimistic. He said he “absolutely” believes it is within Apple’s power to stop mining if the company is serious about doing so. And didn’t see the goals of profitability and sustainability as diametrically opposed.
“A phone with a battery that lasts longer would probably sell a lot,” he said.