Apple’s E-Waste Problem Will Take More Than Robots to Solve

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There’s a fancy new iPhone recycling robot on the block, just in time to help Apple score some brownie points with the greens on Earth Day. Its name is Daisy, and it’s being covered with the same breathless enthusiasm the tech blogosphere served up for its predecessor, Liam.

The bot can apparently turn 200 iPhones into a sorted pile of screens, screws, and chips every hour, a process that is undeniably cool to watch. But, at least in their current form, innovations like Daisy aren’t going to save us from our growing mountain of e-waste.

Daisy is part of Apple’s larger ambition of achieving a “closed-loop” supply chain, a goal the company first announced in its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report. In its most recent environmental responsibility report, released Thursday, Apple not only introduced the new robot, but a short-list of critical materials it’s hoping Daisy can help us recover first, including cobalt, copper, and rare earths.


“These materials will then be sent back into secondary materials markets—closing the loop on these materials and reducing the need to mine more resources from the earth,” the report reads.

Like Liam, Apple’s first iPhone recycling robot, Daisy is a prototype, and so far there’s just one. But Apple has plans to scale up, saying it intends to install the bot in “multiple locations around the world,” beginning with a second Daisy somewhere in Europe (the first is located in the U.S.).

Beyond the fact that these are prototypes, though, there’s a bigger issue when it comes to banking on Apple’s robots to deconstruct Apple’s phones. It means you’re going to have to give your phone back to Apple.


To the company’s credit, it has spent the last few years beefing up its recycling initiatives, launching a free recycling program called Apple Renew in 2016, and this week announcing Apple GiveBack, which encourage users to trade in devices for a gift card (if they qualify).

It’s unclear how successful these programs have been. As of publication, Apple has not responded to a request for information on how many iPhones got returned for recycling last year. But with more than a billion phones sold since 2007, we can assume many older generation phones haven’t made it back to the company—and with so much of our e-waste winding up right in the trash, the best we can probably hope for is for a lot of these phones to eventually wind up with third-party recyclers.


“Barring a very large scale deployment of Daisy or her sisters, most recycling is going to be done by independent recyclers—by human hands,” Gary Cook, a senior IT analyst at Greenpeace, told Earther.

That brings us to another trouble. iPhones (most Apple products, really) are becoming harder and harder for humans to deconstruct, with increasingly miniaturized parts that are increasingly glued and soldered together.


Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling, told Earther that most consumer e-waste handlers aren’t really set up for the precision work needed to deconstruct a smartphone. They’re still mainly receiving older, bulkier computers, printers, and most of all, our now-ancient CRT TVs.

“They’ve invested in large pieces of shredding equipment, and that’s not really what you want to do with a tablet or a small device,” Linnell said.


While some of the older, cheaper tablets are starting to make it into the consumer e-waste stream, Linnell says smartphones are still mostly being refurbished and resold. When they eventually start flooding the recycling plants, it’s going to create big challenges for the industry, which’ll have to spend less time shredding and more time painstakingly picking gadgets apart for smaller and smaller amounts of material to be resold.

In some cases, that just might not be economical, meaning phones with lots of valuable bits may be wastefully shredded or thrown out.


Linnell said that in his view, the best thing that could come out of robots like Daisy is for Apple to become more aware of disassembly challenges and design future phones that are easier to take apart for recycling, but also for basic repairs like battery and screen replacement.

He stressed that we should be focusing on refurbishing and reselling smartphones as long as we can, and that dissembling everything to recycle the raw materials a la Daisy is really “the last step.”


Cook agrees. “We need to make sure [our] investment [in new devices] lasts as long as possible,” he said. “Apple could be making design choices that make sure they last.”