Apple accelerates use of recycled materials across all its products

Apple will use 100% recycled cobalt in batteries by 2025. It already uses large quantities of recycled rare earths and tungsten in products and has begun using AR to support disassembly.

Apple, cobalt, sustainability, supply chain, rare earths

Any enterprise serious about meeting internationally agreed-upon carbon reduction targets will want to emulate Apple as the company announces plans to use 100% recycled cobalt in all Apple-designed batteries and reveals numerous other metals it plans to source from recycling.

Toward the closed-loop manufacturing ambition

Apple revealed extensive progress toward the use of renewable energy across its supply chain earlier this month and continues to take time during every product announcement to discuss its work toward carbon neutrality.

These attempts form part of its multifaceted attempt to become carbon neutral across the company by 2030, and to eventually build a closed-loop manufacturing system.

  • In 2022, about 20% of all material shipped in Apple products came from recycled or renewable sources.
  • Apple says that by 2025, magnets in Apple devices will use entirely recycled rare earth elements.
  • It also committed to using 100% recycled tin soldering and 100% recycled gold plating in all “Apple-designed” printed circuit boards by 2025. (38% of all the tin used in its products in 2022 came from recycled sources.)

In a press release announcing its cobalt ambitions, the company tells us that it now gets over two-thirds of all aluminium, almost 75% of all rare earths, and over 95% of all tungsten used in Apple products from 100% recycled material.

In 2022, Apple said, a quarter of all the cobalt used in its products came from recycled material, up from 13% in 2021. Most of the cobalt in Apple products is used inside the batteries.

There has been a similar trajectory for rare earths. Apple first began using recycled rare earths in the Taptic Engine of the iPhone 11. Now it uses them across all its products, including in all the magnets used in iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and Macs.

“As magnets are by far Apple’s largest use of rare earths, the new 2025 target means nearly all rare earths in Apple products will soon be 100% recycled,” the company said.

It’s not just about Apple. The company said it is also “working to encourage broader adoption of recycled gold for non-custom components across the electronics industry.”

A little augmented reality

Apple has built a range of robots to assist in tearing its products apart for recycling but has also now begun to use augmented reality to help make the process more efficient.

In this case, that means overhead projector-based AR systems that are being deployed at the company’s recycling partners. These machines project video imagery directly onto the work surface to guide MacBook and iPad disassembly. That’s an interesting new take on already in use systems, which are more frequently seen guiding product assembly.

Apple has previously explained that from just one metric ton of iPhone components taken apart by Apple’s recycling robots, recyclers can recover the amount of gold and copper companies would typically extract from 2,000 metric tons of mined rock.

What Apple said

“Every day, Apple is innovating to make technology that enriches people’s lives, while protecting the planet we all share,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “From the recycled materials in our products, to the clean energy that powers our operations, our environmental work is integral to everything we make and to who we are. So we’ll keep pressing forward in the belief that great technology should be great for our users, and for the environment.”

Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives, added, “Our ambition to one day use 100% recycled and renewable materials in our products works hand in hand with Apple 2030: our goal to achieve carbon neutral products by 2030. We’re working toward both goals with urgency and advancing innovation across our entire industry in the process.”

The company is prioritizing 14 materials to replace with recycled or renewables: aluminum, cobalt, copper, glass, gold, lithium, paper, plastics, rare earth elements, steel, tantalum, tin, tungsten, and zinc.

Speaking in March 2023, Jackson stressed that Apple hasn’t just set arbitrary goals concerning a move to becoming climate neutral. It has also planned how it intends to get there. “I like to remind people we couldn’t just set a goal, we had to come up with a roadmap, just like we have a roadmap for every product that Apple eventually releases. There’s a roadmap for years to get to that product [of carbon neutrality],” she said.

More than metals

The company continues working to eliminate plastics from its packaging, along with using sustainably sourced paper. This will be noticed by anyone purchasing a new Apple product, who will find extensive use of clever tabs, sticky strips, and origami-like internal packaging in products.

The company is still using a small amount of plastic (it says around 4%) in its product packaging but continues to find ways to reduce of that, including developing a custom printer designed to print directly onto product boxes to get rid of any need for a stick-on label.

The company seems to be committed to maintaining its work to develop more sustainable supply-chain models. That’s not just about shifting manufacturing between continents, but also through partnerships with frontline human rights and environmental groups.

Apple was the first electronics firm to publish a list of the cobalt and lithium refineries it does business with, and it insists smelters and refiners for the precious components it uses are audited. That’s not a foolproof process — I’ve come across multiple criticisms of how this works — but it is still an improvement over nothing at all, and to its credit, Apple has previously confirmed it removed 163 smelters and refiners from its supply chain who failed to pass audits against use of conflict minerals.

Apple is only part of the solution

While Apple’s news sounds good, and it is reassuring to think that at some finite future point the majority of the components used in its devices will probably be recycled, reclaimed, or renewable, that’s only part of the battle. Apple is just one company, and not every manufacturer has come anywhere near as close to matching the scale of its ambitions here.

Consumers have a part to play too — and that includes businesses that may have many hundreds of devices reaching end of life. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum, an international nonprofit, estimated that 5.3 billion of the 16 billion mobile devices in use would become e-waste in 2022. The problem is that people don’t recycle their devices. Convincing them to do so is a process every company should engage in.

Big-ticket announcements such as the new recycling commitment from Apple help bring matters to the public eye, hopefully spurring conversations to increase recycling efforts. Simultaneously, we see a growing disconnect between the anti-sustainability sentiments of some politicians and business leaders in comparison to growing environmental awareness elsewhere in civil society. Those brands that refuse to enagage in these matters to at least the same degree as Apple will be punished by increasingly aware consumers.

Ambition, cooperation, leadership

Coming anywhere near solving these challenges is going to take a huge and consequential quantity of effort. It’s not just about closed-loop manufacturing, though that will help. It’s also about evolving sustainability across every part of life.

In 2021 at a meeting of the UN Climate Change Summit, Apple’s Cook challenged the attendees: “This is no time for changes at the margins. Together we can transition to a carbon-neutral economy and usher in a new era of inclusive opportunity. This is a moment for ambition, cooperation, and leadership.”

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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