Apple is on the cusp of launching a new initiative, pledging to use 100 percent recycled materials in a closed supply loop for fabrication of its devices — but how it intends to do so isn't clear.
"We're actually doing something we rarely do, which is announce a goal before we've completely figured out how to do it," Apple's Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives Lisa Jackson, told VICE News in an interview. "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."
Should Apple be able to pull it off, the move has several benefits, not only for the environment, but for the company's political clout. It, and the rest of the industry, has caught heat lately for its use of cobalt sourced from the Congo in lithium batteries. Other rare earth minerals are thought to be in short supply, and reclaiming more of them than are processed now will only help dependence on suppliers.
Apple is introducing the initiative now in conjunction with the 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report, before it is ready to execute to entice other suppliers into joining, and to recruit talent who can move the goal along.
"Who knows more about recovering metals than people who mine them?" Jackson said. "So some of the same smart people who do that, if they think there is a market for their services on the other side might get involved."
Technology is in place to help now
Apple debuted the "Liam" iPhone disassembly and reclaim robot in March 2016. The robot arm facilitates picking apart the iPhone and other gadgets, tearing the devices down into discreet modules. These parts, like an iPhone screen or logic board, can then be broken down further to recover materials for reintroduction into the global supply.
Also introduced by Jackson, Liam allows tungsten from iPhone's Taptic Engine to be recycled into bits used on cutting tools, while silver from the logic board might make its way into vital components for solar panels. Liam also lets Apple target potentially troublesome chemicals like cobalt and lithium, which are culled from the battery.
All of Apple's Packaging in the US and China
Apple has already established a renewable supply chain for its packaging. In the 2017 Environment Responsibility Report declared that Apple was protecting enough forest to sustainably produce the packaging for its two largest markets.
The program started in 2015 in the US, with a buy of 36,000 acres of forest in conjunction with the The Conservation Fund. Later in the year, it expanded the initiative to encompass 1 million acres in China.
Ease of repair isn't being considered.
Jackson fought back against suggestions that Apple could make products easier to repair. The exec noted that the issue is complicated, both for device producers, and for consumers as well.
"[It] sounds like an easy thing to say," Jackson said. "Technology is really complex; it is sophisticated to make it work, to ensure that you have security and privacy, [and] that somebody isn't giving you bad parts."
With the "bad parts" remark, Jackson is likely obliquely referring to the "error 53" debacle, where an iOS update was bricking phones with Touch ID components replaced by a third party. Error 53 codes began popping up on user iPhone 6 series units from at least early 2015, but the issue gained public notoriety when media outlets reported the supposed glitch in early 2016. Devices affected were rendered inoperable, until Apple pushed a software fix to rectify the problem — but leaving the Touch ID sensor deactivated.
Other highlights from the report
Apple notes that in 2016, 96 percent of the energy used at global facilities came from renewable energy, with 100 percent attained in 24 countries and data centers. Additionally, Apple Park is on track to be the largest LEED Platinum certified building in North America.
To facilitate the 100 percent recycling goal, Apple has identified the substances present in more than 20,000 components — doubling what it tracks in a year.
Apple has also continued to eliminate toxins in its products. Since the last report, beryllium has been eliminated from all new product designs, plus PVC and phthalates have all been replaced with thermoplastic elastomers.