Electronic waste, commonly called e-waste, is a big problem. Over 20 million tons of e-waste are produced annually around, 3.4 million tons of which hail from the U.S. According to iFixit, e-waste in the U.S. alone would weigh more than the combined weight of every living blue whale.
As global use of electronics increases, the volume of e-waste naturally rises with it. But one major American tech company wants to do something to cut this growing waste stream down to size.
Last week, Apple announced a commitment to use 100 percent recycled materials to make its products. That makes it the first major IT firm to adopt such a commitment, which appeared in the company's 2017 Environmental Responsibility report.
Greenpeace released a response to the news of Apple’s commitment. Greenpeace Senior IT Analyst Gary Cook called it “ambitious” and said it 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.” As Apple transitions to non-virgin raw materials, the demand for mined materials will decrease and the recycling rates of electronics will increase, Cook said.
Apple’s announcement will push other companies in the same direction. Cook noted that the company’s pledge comes less than a month after Samsung announced plans to refurbish and recycle the 4.3 million Galaxy Note 7s it recalled last year. Samsung wants to “rebuild customers' trust following the Note 7 incident,” Cook said, and doesn’t want to be lagging behind Apple.
Lisa Jackson, former head of the EPA who now serves as Apple's VP of environment, policy and social initiatives, told Vice News the tech giant is “actually doing something we rarely do, which is announce a goal before we’ve completely figured out how to do it.”
It is a commitment that will require great innovation on Apple’s part. The majority of electronics today are just not designed with the end of the product’s life in mind, as several advocacy groups including the Electronics Take-Back Coalition are quick to note. Manufacturing the product is the focus of companies, and how the product will be dealt with when it’s discarded is not a priority. Companies are simply not thinking about how their products will be recycled.
The materials chosen for electronics are often difficult to recycle, says the Electronics Take-Back Coalition, and electronics are often difficult to disassemble for recycling -- both of which could present problems for Apple.
The company's latest move represents a radical departure from its past practices. A recent investigation by Motherboard revealed that Apple forces its parter recyclers to destroy iPhones and MacBooks by shredding them, rather than opting for reuse or repair.
Motherboard discovered Apple’s practices through documents obtained via Freedom of Information requests. In a 2013 document, John Yeider, Apple’s recycling program manager wrote: “All hard drives are shredded in confetti-sized pieces. The pieces are then sorted into commodities grade materials. After sorting, the materials are sold and used for production stock in new products. No reuse. No parts harvesting. No resale.”
In order for Apple to achieve its commitment to using 100 percent recycled materials, it will need to create a closed-loop supply chain -- a goal the company says it's working toward.
Supply chains are traditionally linear. For electronics, that means materials are “mined, manufactured as products, and often end up in landfills after use,” Apple pointed out in its latest Environmental Responsibility report. In a closed-loop supply chain, products are made using only recycled materials or renewable resources. But it's still too early to tell how this might take shape for Apple.
And there’s something else the tech firm wants to achieve that’s equally ambitious: It wants to eventually ends its reliance on mining.
Many of the materials that make up electronics like smartphones and tablets must be mined -- and human rights groups can link some electronics firms to labor abuses through their mining supply chains. To begin to free itself from mining, Apple is encouraging customers to recycle their old devices through Apple Renew, from which it will source recycled materials. It is also piloting new recycling techniques such as a line of disassembly robots it calls Liam.
Apple acknowledges that its goals are ambitious and “will require many years of collaboration across multiple Apple teams, our suppliers, and specialty recyclers.” But if any company can achieve such ambitious goals, it is likely to be the one that has the ghost of Steve Jobs on its side. This is the company that brought us smartphones and tablets. And it may very well be the one that revolutionizes recycling them.
Image credit: Flickr/Informed Mag
Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.