There’s a pair of near-perfectly juxtaposed stories about Apple in the news today. First, Apple has released its own environmental progress report for 2017. The news here is generally good, as you’d expect from a self-prepared report, but it highlights Apple’s success in moving to fully renewable energy and to use less power across its entire product stack. Other investigations into the company’s practices, however, haven’t been so rosy.
In the report, Apple claims that it wants to move to products that are fully recyclable. The report reads:
Traditional supply chains are linear. Materials are mined, manufactured as products, and often end up in landfills after use… We believe our goal should be a closed-loop supply chain, where products are built using only renewable resources or recycled material. We already have programs in place to ensure the finite materials we use in our products are sourced responsibly through strict standards and programs on the ground that drive positive change…
[W]e’re piloting innovative new recycling techniques, like our line of disassembly robots, so we can put reclaimed materials to better use in new products. It’s an ambitious goal that will require many years of collaboration across multiple Apple teams, our suppliers, and specialty recyclers—but our work is already under way.
So, to hear Apple tell it, the day is soon coming when it’ll be able to hand you an iPhone and say “This iPhone built from recycled hardware,” and you’ll never know the difference. That’s an ambitious goal. It might not be cheaper than using new materials right out of the gate, but over time as new methods to improve efficiency are discovered, Apple might one day be able to build devices out of mostly recycled material for less than it would cost to buy new components. Given how many smartphones go into landfills every year, and how many hundreds of millions of phones Apple sells, this kind of efficiency would make a material impact on e-waste and could encourage other companies to create their own recycling programs.
Apple’s desire to tout its own environmental credentials isn’t surprising, but a new article from Vice puts a different spin on the company’s activities. According to their year-long investigation, Apple iPhones and MacBooks aren’t “recycled” in any meaningful sense. Instead, they’re completely destroyed, by Apple’s specific order. The Cupertino-based company handles almost none of its own recycling, instead farming it out to various third parties, and they forbid any reuse or resale of any components. Everything is shredded down to commodity-grade bits of metal, plastic, and glass, with Apple handling just a fraction of their own materials processing.
There are multiple problems with this approach. First, while shredding computers and phones into base stocks of plastic, glass, and metal may still count as “recycling,” it ignores how many of these devices could be repaired, reused, and sold for profit. Funding from such activities could actually help pay for more recycling — a recent USA Today story dove into how falling prices for recycled stock material have put the crunch on recycling companies.
Apple’s current policies ensure that their own recycled products are worth a minimal amount of money, which makes it more difficult for recycling companies to stay in business. And make no mistake — this is about branding, with device security a distant second and environmentalism far behind. Just as fashion brands regularly destroy entire product runs at the end of a season to prevent their clothes from ending up on people deemed undesirable (if unofficial) brand ambassadors, Apple doesn’t want Macs flooding into a resale market, because it would create the expectation that Macs should be priced lower than they are.
The juxtaposition of Vice’s findings and Apple’s environmental report highlights the difficulty of developing a truly comprehensive recycling and reuse program. If Apple can start building smartphones out of 100% recycled materials (or even 80-90%) that would be a huge step forward relative to where we are. At the same time, however, Apple is pursuing strategies that guarantee its own hardware ends up in landfills or used as filler in the manufacture of other goods, rather than allowing them to be reused or repaired. If the company is serious about reducing its own pollution, it needs to develop recycling practices that it and its partners can both use to repair and reuse existing products, not just manufacture new ones.