Your smartphone is a little chest of metals, minerals, and rare earth materials. You can find at least 70 of the 83 stable nonradioactive elements in the average smartphone. Once these materials are dug up out of the Earth, at a huge cost to the environment, they often run through numerous warlords and militias where they eventually end up being sold to multinational tech companies to make your smartphone.
Apple is hoping to change this. The world's largest technology company has vowed to stop mining the Earth and rely solely on recycled materials to make its iPhones, iPads, and other electronic equipment, as announced this week in its 2017 Environment Responsibility Report.
“It sounds crazy, but we’re working on it. We’re moving toward a closed-loop supply chain. One day we’d like to be able to build new products with just recycled materials, including your old products,” Apple says on its website.
One of the main drives is to encourage customers to return defunct products to its recycling program, Apple New. The products are disassembled by a 29-armed robot assembly line called LIAM, which can gut 24 million iPhones in a year with minimal degradation of the metals' quality.
It also has “Material Risk Profiles” that track the global environmental, social, and supply risk factor of 44 elements used in their products. Their current priorities (and perhaps their worst offenders) are aluminum, tin, and cobalt.
There is a slight hurdle with these grand plans: the company doesn’t know how or when the plan will come together.
“We’re actually doing something we rarely do, which is announce a goal before we’ve completely figured out how to do it,” Lisa Jackson, former EPA administrator and now Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, explained in an interview with VICE News. “So we’re a little nervous, but we also think it’s really important, because as a sector we believe it’s where technology should be going.”
Needless to say, the distant plans have been celebrated by environmental organizations already.
“Apple’s commitment to 100% recycled materials is ambitious, and highlights the need for greater urgency across the sector to reduce resource consumption and e-waste that are causing significant impacts on the environment and human health," Gary Cook, Greenpeace's Senior IT Analyst, said in a statement. "Transitioning to non-virgin raw materials will help to decrease the demand for mined metals and other inputs, and increase recycling rates of electronics directly.”
Outside of this, Apple has done a pretty job of “going green”. The paper in its packaging is 99 percent recycled and responsibly sourced and all of its properties (including data centers, corporate offices, and stores) run on 96 percent renewable energy. Weening themselves off the mines, however, might be their biggest challenge yet.