Apple is taking steps to end its reliance on mining for the materials that it uses in its devices, becoming the first big tech company to commit to using only recycled metals, rare earths, and other minerals. The company outlined its aim to stop digging up new resources in its latest Environmental Responsibility Report (PDF), released today. In the document, Apple says that it plans to “one day” move to a closed-loop manufacturing system (in which it can get all the metals and rare earths it needs from recycle and reuse programs), but that it’s not entirely sure how to get to that point.
That goal was backed up by an interview with Vice, in which Lisa Jackson — Apple’s VP of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives — said that the company was committing “to not necessarily having to source from the earth for everything that we need,” but that it didn’t have a complete roadmap yet. “We’re actually doing something we rarely do, which is announce a goal before we’ve completely figured out how to do it,” she said.
The company says it already has schemes in place for some materials. For aluminum, it is relying on old Apple products — the only source of the metal on the market that it considers high enough grade to be reused in future iPhones, iPads, and other devices. For tin, however, it’s happy to use a more general supply, specifying that recycled material from other sources meets its quality standards.
In working out which materials to prioritize, Apple created “Material Risk Profiles,” judging the environmental and social impact of obtaining the various resources it uses. It then weighed those profiles up against how it uses the materials, how often they are included in products, and where the company could make the most difference. The profiles aim to help Apple systematically tackle the sourcing of each material until mining for new resources is no longer necessary, but that transition won’t be immediate — not all of the materials used in Apple products even have recycling procedures in place yet.
To that end, Apple says it also aims to drive improvements in the recycling industry, inventing new processes or sparking changes in policy that could see more metals, minerals, and rare earths drawn out of old devices. It points to “Liam” — a disassembly line of robots that can pull apart old iPhone 6 devices, saving far more of their precious innards than regular recycling processes like shredding are capable of — as an example of such new tech.
Apple’s move has been met with applause from environmental group Greenpeace. “This commitment, and Apple’s recent progress in transitioning its supply chain in Asia to renewable energy, puts it far ahead of others in the sector,” senior IT analyst Gary Cook said. “Major IT brands such as Samsung, Huawei, and Microsoft should quickly match Apple’s leadership, if they don’t want to risk falling even further behind.”
But while Apple’s announcement sounds like a promise, the company offers no concrete commitment on when it will move to a 100-percent recycling manufacturing system saying only that it was “challenging” itself to end its reliance on mining. The company has made impressive steps in reducing its environmental footprint in recent years, but how fast it transitions to closed-loop production — or even whether it can — remains to be seen.