Be honest… how many times have you upgraded to the latest iPhone MacBook, or iPad?
Americans throw away over 130 million cell phones and one million laptops a year, and one of the biggest downsides to these electronics is that many of their components come at a cost to the environment and have major social implications.
In fact, of the 54 million metric tons of electronics thrown away in 2019, $10 billion worth of precious metals were lost, each of which was mined at a cost to the Earth, only to be tossed in a landfill when the majority of items still functioned properly. On top of that, many of these materials like cobalt for batteries are mined across the Global South, and due to thinly regulated laws in places like Congo, child labor has been employed.
Thus, among the laundry list of things companies could be doing to both lower the environmental footprint of them and their consumers and eliminate their own human rights violations, making their electronics out of already recycled materials is high on the list.
Announced on Thursday, April 13, Apple is finally doing just that.
By 2025, 100% of their batteries will be made with recycled cobalt, magnets made with 100% recycled rare earth elements, and all Apple-designed printed circuit boards will use 100% recycled tin soldering (a material used in the logic board) and 100% recycled gold plating (used in camera wiring).
Around this time last year — just in time for Earth Day — Apple announced it was doubling its use of recycled materials in products and pushing to eliminate plastics in packaging by 2025.
Now, ahead of the infamous April holiday when every company goes green, Apple is rolling out its new sustainable initiatives.
While Apple still has a long way to go before reaching its goal of making all products carbon-neutral by 2030, and one day making all products with only recycled and renewable materials, the move marks significant progress.
“We’re working toward both goals with urgency and advancing innovation across our entire industry in the process,” Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives said in a statement.
In 2022, two-thirds of all aluminum, nearly three-quarters of all rare earths, and more than 95% of all tungsten in Apple products from 100% recycled material the technology company reports.
Apple working toward using 100% recycled cobalt for batteries is a big deal. As The Guardian reported in 2021, aside from widespread environmental harm and major impacts on biodiversity, the price of lithium and cobalt mining is usually child labor and mines with deplorable working conditions. Unregulated operations use children as young as seven for miners. Plus, the mines are a dangerous place to be especially when the cobalt-laden dust can cause fatal lung ailments.
Cobalt and lithium are needed for the green revolution, but the social and environmental issues associated with their mining are not. In the past, Apple, along with several other tech giants like Microsoft, Google, and Tesla, have faced lawsuits for alleged child labor, as news surfaced of children mining cobalt in Congo.
A year after the news surfaced in 2018, Apple pledged to no longer mine in Congo. Now, according to the California-based company, the thousands of tons of cobalt it’s mined since 2019 are enough to utilize in all new devices by 2025. These devices include the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and MacBook.
On top of using recycled cobalt, metals, and more, the company says it is also pursuing ways to directly support communities whose livelihoods depend on mining, such as the Fund for Global Human Rights to provide support for human rights and environmental defenders, including those in in the African Great Lakes region, as well as vocational education programs that they say will enable members of local communities to move away from mining to build skills and pursue new opportunities.
While using recycled materials in new products is a great thing, it begs the question of what is happening with cobalt, rare earths, and other materials in old products.
According to Apple, they’re further investing in research and development for this exact thing. Since 2019, the company estimates that Daisy, iPhone disassembly robot, has recovered more than 11,000 kilograms of cobalt.
When most smartphones have about eight grams of cobalt packed inside, that’s enough cobalt for almost 1.4 million iPhones. This may be a fraction of the over 200 million iPhones sold annually in recent years, Daisy can also help recover rare earth metals and is just one of the pieces of technology Apple is using to make headway on its goals.
Dave, a robot deployed with a recycling partner in China, can help further accelerate the recovery of rare earth elements by disassembling Taptic Engines, the feature that makes a phone vibrate. And the company is employing augmented reality technology to help guide the disassembly of MacBooks and iPads in order to maximize recyclability.
So what can you be doing to lower your e-waste footprint while helping Apple on its mission? Give your old phones and other electronics back to their makers or recycle them at locally designated collection points.
As of 2018, Apple received nearly one million devices through its programs, and Daisies across its facilities was able to disassemble 1.2 million devices per year leading to more than 7.8 million refurbished Apple devices and a diversion of more than 48,000 metric tons of electronic waste from landfills.
On average, every person on the planet purchases a new cell phone almost every year. 18 to 24 months to be exact, SecondWave Recycling reports. But if every American alone recycled the 130 million phones tossed away every year, we would save enough energy to power 24,000 homes. Learn more about how you can play your part here.