Apple Inc is trying to change the way electronics are recycled with a robot that disassembles its iconic iPhone so that minerals can be recovered and reused, but rising global demand for electronics means new mines will still be needed by manufacturers.
The Cupertino, California-based company says the robot is part of its plan to become a “closed-loop” manufacturer that does not rely on the mining industry, an aggressive goal that some industry analysts have said is impossible.
Inside a nondescript warehouse on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, Apple’s Daisy robot has been designed to break apart iPhones so that 14 minerals, including lithium, can be extracted and recycled.
Apple is already using recycled aluminium, tin, cobalt and rare earths in some of its products, with plans to add to that list in coming years.
Daisy, less than 20 yards in length, uses a four-step process to remove an iPhone’s battery with a blast of -80 Celsius (-176 Fahrenheit) degree air, and then pop out screws and modules, including the haptic monitor that makes a phone vibrate.
The components are then sent off to recyclers for the minerals to be extracted and refined. Daisy can tear apart 200 iPhones per hour. In 2017, the robot in Austin processed 1 million iPhones, Apple said.
Apple chose the iPhone to be the first of its products that Daisy would disassemble because of its mass popularity, said Lisa Jackson, the company’s head of environment, policy and social initiatives.
Apple is considering sharing the Daisy technology with others, including electric automakers. Daisy does have its skeptics, including many in the tech world who see it primarily as a public relations stunt.
“There’s this ego that believes they can get all their minerals back, and it’s not possible,” said Kyle Wiens, chief executive of iFixit, a firm dedicated to repairing rather than discarding iPhones and other electronics.
That may partially explain why the mining industry isn’t worried.
“Apple is in an enviable position, because they can do this,” said Tom Butler, president of the International Council on Mining and Metals, an industry trade group. “Not everyone else will be able to follow suit.”
Many mining executives also note that with the rising popularity of electric vehicles, newly mined minerals will be needed in even larger scale, a reality that Apple acknowledges.
“We’re not necessarily competing with the folks who mine,” said Apple’s Jackson, who ran the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama. “There’s nothing for miners to fear in this development.”