Hardware

Here's why Apple built a recycling robot that rips apart 200 iPhones per hour

Apple also announced a new GiveBack program where people can bring in old tech for recycling in exchange for store credit.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • Apple's recycling robot Daisy will be able to take apart nine different models of iPhones at a rate of about 200 per hour.
  • Apple believes Daisy will be able to help limit their reliance on mining by recycling vital materials.

Apple has announced the creation of Daisy, a robot specifically designed to quickly disassemble several different iPhone models and recycle parts that can be used again, the company detailed in a Thursday press release.

Daisy is actually a bit of a composite itself—the robot is made up of parts from another recycling robot, Liam, that was created in 2016, the release said. Daisy will be used first in the US and Europe and then expand worldwide.

According to Apple's release, Daisy will be able take apart nearly 200 iPhones per hour, pushing the company closer to its goal of ending its reliance on mining for vital smartphone materials like cobalt. From every 100,000 iPhones Daisy disassembles, the release said, Apple will be able to harness about 1 kg of gold, 7.5kg of silver, almost two tons of aluminum, and 11kg worth of certain rare-earth elements and minerals like cobalt, palladium, tungsten, tantalum, and tin.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

Apple announced Daisy's arrival in conjunction with its Apple GiveBack program, which is encouraging customers to bring in their old Apple products to recycle and possibly receive Apple Store credit in return.

"In recognition of Earth Day, we are making it as simple as possible for our customers to recycle devices and do something good for the planet through Apple GiveBack. We're also thrilled to introduce Daisy to the world, as she represents what's possible when innovation and conservation meet," Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives, said in the release.

In its Sustainability Report last year, Apple vowed to limit its mining practices, which have been criticized for years by both environmental groups and civil society organizations like Amnesty International, who say the company's insatiable desire for minerals like cobalt has stoked conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and fueled child labor practices.

Cobalt is necessary for almost all smartphone batteries, and in 2014 UNICEF said nearly 40,000 children worked in mines across the DRC searching for it. The US Department of Labor even went so far as to list Congolese cobalt as "produced by child labor" since 2009.

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Image: Apple

Apple is hoping Daisy is the first step in the process of divesting from the mining process entirely, writing in their sustainability report that they are "challenging ourselves to one day end our reliance on mining altogether."

"Traditional supply chains are linear. Materials are mined, manufactured as products, and often end up in landfills after use," Apple wrote in the report last year. "Then the process starts over and more materials are extracted from the earth for new products. We believe our goal should be a closed-loop supply chain, where products are built using only renewable resources or recycled material."

SEE: Green tech initiatives: Best practices and breakthroughs (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Traditional e-waste recycling involves giant metal grinders and shredders that tear apart an entire device before separating the materials it was made of. With Daisy, though, Apple could possibly extract working components more effectively, which could then be used in refurbished devices and more.

For the next few days, Apple will also make contributions to non-profit Conservation International for every device received in the GiveBack program, the release said. Apple wrote that Conservation International "uses science, policy and partnerships to protect the natural world people rely on for food, fresh water and livelihood."

Apple received praise for Daisy's unveiling and their environmental efforts, but not everyone was happy. Greenpeace Senior analyst Gary Cook slammed the announcement, saying in a statement that "rather than another recycling robot, what is most needed from Apple is an indication that the company is embracing one of its greatest opportunities to reduce its environmental impact: repairable and upgradeable product design."

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Image: Apple

Cook pointed to Apple's vociferous opposition to several "right to repair" laws making their way through US state senates across the country. The laws would force major hardware producers to allow independent repair shops and customers to repair their devices with service parts provided by tech companies.

Greenpeace has gone after Apple multiple times for the repairability of their devices, criticizing the smartphone maker for what they say is clear evidence that Apple makes their products hard to repair and with an intentionally short lifespan.

Despite their criticism, Greenpeace often ranks Apple higher than most tech companies due to their public efforts to support environmentalism and acknowledgement of shortcomings within their supply chain.

"Apple's latest environment report highlights the company's continued leadership in aggressively deploying renewable energy to tackle the greenhouse gas footprint of not only its own operations, but also its suppliers who are responsible for the vast majority of its emissions," Cook said in the statement.

If successful, Apple's use of Daisy could encourage other tech companies to bring their own recycling programs in-house. And while its full impact remains to be seen, one has to wonder if it could encourage Apple to build their phones any differently, perhaps making components easier to access and therefore easier to recycle.

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About Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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