Can We Make New Phones from Nothing But Old Ones?

As if saying hello, the robot arm waves an iPhone at you. Then, in a few swift maneuvers, the arm and a suite of machinery begin dismantling the phone. First goes the outer casing. Next are the screws and other metal parts, dropping into neat piles. “Meet Liam,” says the voice-over on Apple’s promotional video. Like most things from Apple, Liam looks pretty cool.

Apple created a robot named Liam to disassemble iPhones.

Liam is a robot—29 robots working in concert, to be precise—whose job is to take apart iPhones. Apple unveiled the system last year in a bid to more efficiently recycle used phones. But recently, Liam has become part of an even more ambitious plan announced in April: eventually, Apple wants to make new products using only recycled products.

Ideally, that means all your old Apple stuff would eventually become new Apple stuff. There would be no waste and no need to mine for more materials. Such an idea is called a closed-loop supply chain, part of a concept also referred to as a circular economy or a cradle-to-cradle philosophy, which considers the entire lifecycle of a product and was popularized by the architect and designer William McDonough.

In a world with finite natural resources—such as the rare earth metals needed for all your favorite devices—dubious mining practices rife with environmental and human rights problems, and a global appetite for electronics that will only grow, a closed-loop approach may not be just a good idea, but a necessary one. According to a 2014 report from the United Nations, people generated 92.1 billion pounds of e-waste in 2014. That number is expected to balloon to 110 billion pounds in 2018—roughly the weight of 25,000 space shuttles. A closed loop could trim those numbers significantly.

As sustainability has become an industry buzzword, some companies have tried implementing a closed loop. But none are as big and influential as Apple.

While Apple’s goals are laudable, the announcement didn’t exactly include a detailed plan—drawing some skepticism from experts. “It didn’t make people in the industry really excited because, well, you’re not looking at what it’s going to take to do that,” says Carole Mars, the senior research lead for the Sustainability Consortium at Arizona State University.

In fact, no one’s ever achieved a true closed loop on the scale of Apple’s ambitions. And even the company admits they’re not sure how it’ll be done. “We’re actually doing something we rarely do, which is announce a goal before we’ve completely figured out how to do it,” said Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives and former head of the EPA, told VICE News in April.

The challenges, to say the least, are many.

Better Design

If there’s a guru for a closed-loop philosophy, it’s McDonough, who literally wrote the book on it—Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things, with Michael Braungart in 2002. He’s designed numerous energy efficient buildings, including the Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge Factory, complete with a 10.4-acre living roof.

In 1993, McDonough and his firm, MBDC, designed a greenhouse factory and offices for Herman Miller, a Michigan-based furniture company. By the end of the decade, the firm began helping Herman Miller embrace a cradle-to-cradle philosophy. “Bill challenged us to think about how we design our products to be part of a closed-loop system,” says Gabe Wing, director of environmental health and safety at Herman Miller.

A Herman Miller employee assembles a chair in one of its factories.

According to Wing, the company has led the way when it comes to designing furniture that’s not only made from recycled and recyclable materials, but also easy to disassemble. To recycle, after all, is to break something down into its basic components for reuse. Anything that makes it harder to dismantle, like gluing disparate parts together, becomes a hindrance. If a product isn’t designed from the start with disassembly in mind, then recycling will be that much more difficult.

“You have to start with a proper design part up front,” Wing says. “It’s just way too hard to go back and fix things.”

That’s where Apple has garnered criticism. For all the praise heaped on Apple’s sleek gadgets and their precise assembly, critics say the company’s products are poorly designed when it comes time to take them apart. Batteries are glued in, disassembly instructions are secret, and even the screws are proprietary. Apple’s products, along with those from Samsung and Google, are the most difficult to dismantle and repair, according to a report from Greenpeace and the tech repair company iFixit, one of Apple’s consistent critics.

Since no one knows Apple products better than Apple, they’re best positioned to dismantle iPhones—which is why they’ve designed Liam. The robot, however, is still a research project. For now, it only works on the iPhone 6. Only two of the systems exist; together, they’re capable of taking apart a total of 2.4 million phones per year. That might sound like a lot, but consider that when the iPhone 6 was launched, Apple sold 10 million during the opening weekend alone. Today, more than 1 billion Apple devices are in use worldwide.

A Melting Pot

But even if Apple builds thousands of Liams to take care of every different product, disassembly is just the start. Sure, the robot can break down a phone into parts. If you want to recover raw materials, though—like copper, tin, cobalt, and tungsten—you would have to melt them down, and separate the metals.

That’s where it gets tricky. Today’s sophisticated phones require dozens of elements, including rare earth metals like indium, dysprosium, and neodymium, scattered throughout the device in tiny amounts. The glass on a touchscreen, for example, contains bits of indium. Just a few micrograms of hafnium is buried inside the semiconductor chip of your phone. Picking that out of a melting pot of parts isn’t impossible, but it’s not easy.

“The chemistry is complicated,” says Alex King, the director of the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute. “But in the end, you could always design a chemical process that separates one from another.”

Disassembling modern smartphones can be a complicated process. Here, iFixit, a repair company, has taken apart an iPhone 7.

The issue isn’t chemistry or engineering; rather, it’s economics. It simply might not be worthwhile to extract such small amounts of metal. The process will probably cost more in energy and labor than the value of whatever bit of material you recover. So to recycle every element in an iPhone won’t be economical or practical. “They would be very lucky to be able to recycle a third of the elements in the phone,” King says.

Recycling the majority of a phone as measured by mass, on the other hand, may be feasible, he says. Apple plans to first focus on recycling its high-quality aluminum. Liam can recover 1,900 kilograms of aluminum for every 100,000 iPhones. According to its 2017 environmental report, the company is already using some of that recovered aluminum to build mini computers used in the final assembly facilities for its iPhone. They’re also trying to scale up methods to recover tin, and researching how to recover cobalt from their batteries.

Logistics

Disassembly and recovery is still only part of what makes a true closed loop. After selling a product, most companies never see it again. But for a closed-loop system, Apple would have to somehow recover all those old iPhones and iPods that end up at the bottom of your drawer. Otherwise, Liam is a robot without a job.

“Liam is a great proof of concept—it’s great R&D,” Mars says. “But Apple is going to have a very hard time getting enough phones together to make robots like that feasible.”

The company is encouraging customers to use its Renew program, which offers gift certificates in exchange for old devices. But that’s failed to entice many of us who still have old gadgets lying around. Gift certificates probably aren’t enough to close the loop.

Indeed, the logistics of retrieving used products may be the toughest part of a closed loop, regardless of whether they’re phones or chairs. Even Herman Miller, for all its experience, has found the task harder than expected, Wing says.

Despite spending the last two decades incorporating a cradle-to-cradle philosophy, creating a product line for which 70% meets a cradle-to-cradle standard, Herman Miller still can’t claim a closed-loop supply chain. “We’re a long way from being a truly closed loop,” Wing says.

The company has a Repurpose program to help customers donate or recycle old furniture. A few years ago, it set a goal to reuse or recycle half of its products—125,000 tons worth per year—by 2023. Today, Wing says, they’re only at 6,000 tons.

But they’re making progress, he says. He cites one of the company’s success stories, in which they worked with General Motors to donate 2,000 tons of used office furniture, worth $1 million, to 100 nonprofits throughout the Detroit area. The furniture wasn’t recycled, but it was reused and avoided the landfill.

Maybe the best example of a successful closed-loop belongs to Dell. It began in 2008, when the company began building the casing of its Optiplex desktop computers with recycled plastic, made from things like bottles and CD cases. In 2013, they expanded their recycling program, aiming to recycle plastic from 2 billion pounds of electronics by 2020.

Then, in 2014, Dell started recycling the plastic from computers—including their own—for use in new desktops. It was one of the first instances of a true closed loop at that scale, earning an award from the Green Electronics Council. (Dell isn’t the only one to reach this achievement in the industry: Hewlett-Packard’s printer cartridges, made from a simpler type of plastic, have been in a closed-loop for years.) “It was a really impressive feat,” Mars says. Today, Dell is recycling plastic from nearly 1.8 billion pounds of electronics, says Scott O’Connell, Dell’s director of environmental affairs. The company has incorporated 10 million pounds of closed-loop plastic in 91 products, from desktops to monitors, O’Connell says.

To recover so much plastic, Dell relies on a take-back and recycling program that spans 83 countries and territories around the world. In the U.S., it has partnered with Goodwill to establish a network of collection locations. The company also tries to design products that can be disassembled and easily refurbished, with unglued, removable batteries, for example.

But most of the plastic in Dell’s products still isn’t in a closed-loop. Only 18% is recycled plastic, and less than 5% comes from old computers. Despite the modest numbers, it’s still enough to save the company 10% in plastic costs, O’Connell says.

The company is now looking to use closed-loop plastic in more products and build more recycling and recovery facilities in other parts of the world like Asia and Europe. They’ve also started closing the loop for carbon fiber, used for components such as laptop bases and LCD panel covers.

Future Loops

Dell’s public aspirations may not be as bold as Apple’s, but their shorter time scale and more modest ambitions allow them to be more concrete about their near-term goals. If you read Apple’s statements more closely, they are somewhat open-ended and vague. “We believe our goal should be a closed-loop supply chain, where products are built using only renewable resources or recycled material,” reads its environmental report. It’s certainly a more sustainable practice, but it isn’t exactly a closed loop—at least not in the conventional sense of the term.

“This is a big squishy area in sustainability conversations in general,” Mars says. “Where do you draw the line about closed loop?”

Could Apple make new iPhones from old ones? Right now, it's cost prohibitive.

In the more traditional definition, you have to recycle your own products for reuse. Simply making products out of recycled material, while still a great benefit, isn’t closing the loop. “It’s definitely a loop,” Mars says, “but it’s an open loop.”

Apple’s report, of course, describes using recycled aluminum that Liam extracts from iPhones and exploring new ways to recover tin. But it also says that in some cases, as long as you recover, recycle, and put the same amount of material back in the market, using recycled stuff is enough. This bypasses the nontrivial logistical problem of retrieving your own product.

How tightly the loop is closed may be just a matter of semantics at this point. Other than Liam and the mentions of aluminum, tin, and cobalt in its report, Apple hasn’t elaborated on how it might achieve its goal. When reached for comment, an Apple spokesperson said there’s nothing new and that the company typically doesn’t speak publicly about future plans. One piece of public information that hints at their progress came in June, when Apple issued a $1 billion green bond to fund energy efficiency and renewable energy projects—including the effort to develop a closed-loop supply chain.

Still, Mars says she would like to hear more detail over the next few months about what Apple’s first steps might be: What are their priorities and how do they plan to boost recycling? The answers, she says, will reveal how serious their ambitions are.

If Apple does make strides, its influence could be felt throughout the industry. Just ramping up recycling could increase supply and demand for certain metals, stimulating the market for recycling companies. “If Apple tells its supplier you will use recycled materials, that ripples through the entire supply chain and actually makes recyclable materials more available,” King says.

Then there are Apple’s loyal fans. “All Tim Cook has to do is stand up and say not having recycled content is unacceptable; everybody should do this,” Mars says. “You’ve started a movement.”

What Apple can do is to make the marketplace aware of closed-loop. “Make this sexy. Make it desirable. Make it part of the cultural experience of Apple,” she says. “If you can get that ball rolling, then you can be very sure that the Samsungs and the LGs are going to be all over it.”

In the end, though, a true 100% closed loop for electronics may not be possible. But one thing is clear: even getting close will take time. Perhaps decades. It will take years for the industry to figure out the logistics of retrieving products. It will take years to develop the technology, infrastructure, and market to recycle more materials.

All that may have to coincide with a shift in how we consumers think about our gizmos. “This is moving from a product of consumption to a product of service,” Wing says. Eventually, instead of owning your computer, you might lease it. When you’re ready to upgrade, you return it for recycling.

“I hope that this is the beginning of an awesome story with Apple,” Mars says. “I would love to see it live up to the expectations being put on them in the media. That would be huge.”