What would it mean if Apple stopped mining for iPhone materials?
Apple hopes that it’ll eventually be able to manufacture iPhones, iPads, Macbooks, and other products using exclusively recycled materials, rather than relying upon mining finite resources. Released as part of the company’s annual environmental report, the announcement has understandably garnered significant media attention, but perhaps more importantly it offers a clear lens to think about the question, what could it mean if a large company that produces hi-tech, complex products entirely wiped out its demand for mined materials?
It’s fair to take Apple’s announcement with a grain of salt considering the absence of any kind of timeline or action plan for implementing these changes. Indeed, the company itself has been relatively open about the challenge saying it wants to “one day” achieve the goal, but isn’t sure how it will do so.
However, the move does resonate with their 2016 release of recycling robot Liam, a new piece of technology designed to disassemble iPhones more efficiently and effectively than previously possible. While these automated disassembly machines currently only exist on a very small scale, there is a synergy in the approach where Liam enables the recovery of materials, which could then hypothetically be recycled into new devices.
Perhaps the potential issues really lie with the original question. Starting with a vision for replacing raw materials with recycled content is probably not the most effective mechanism for tackling the challenges and identifying opportunities, especially considering the inability to assert whether it is even possible or not, even setting aside the business and economics angle for a moment. This graphic from Visual Capitalist gives some idea of the complex material mix that makes up a modern day iPhone. Of the 83 stable and non-radioactive elements in the periodic table, a total of 62 different types of metals go into the average mobile handset.
Recognition in this year’s report that design for longevity and upgrade is arguably a more significant statement from a company that until now has relied upon a model where customers have to replace their iPhones every three years, even if a shift on their negative stance towards ‘right to repair’ is not forthcoming.
The effectiveness of Apple’s approach will be judged over time, and is obviously influenced by factors outside of the realms of easily measurable economic value and environmental impact, influencing brand perception and market competitiveness.
Viewing and discussing Apple’s stated ambition sheds light on a common misunderstanding of the circular economy, “where eager businesses recover their products and magic them back to life for their customers with no waste”, as Ken Webster once put it. There’s unquestionably value to be gained from this approach, but there are also significant opportunities missed by not visiting other important aspects of the product in particular the design, business model that fits around the product, and the ecosystem in which it sits.