Recently, tech giant Apple made a bit of a splash with the announcement of a lofty sustainability goal — one the company itself is not sure how to achieve yet.
Kicking off its new Environmental Responsibility Report with the question “Can we one day stop mining the Earth altogether?,” Apple commits itself to working towards a “closed-loop supply chain, where products are built using only renewable resources or recycled material.”
However, while Apple currently boasts some of the most robust and rigorous sustainability and recycling programs in the entire tech sector, “the goal of a mining-free iPhone is not only far off; at the moment, it’s scientifically impossible,” writes Jason Koebler for Motherboard. Scientific confirmation of that statement comes from someone who would know: Alex King, director of the Critical Materials Institute at the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.
King, while giving the company credit for making a “noble promise” setting a real “‘stretch goal’ for the company,” points out that while recycling aluminum is easy, the same cannot be said for some of the other materials that make up the iPhone:
“The current iPhone models use somewhere around 60 or 65 distinct chemical elements, most of which are not recycled at all today and only come from mines.”
Citing the example of Neodymium — which is used in the iPhone’s speakers and has so far only been recycled in miniscule quantities in research studies rather than on a bigger scale — Benjamin Sprecher, a researcher at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands focused on REE recycling agrees, arguing that “there is no recycling infrastructure in place to produce some of these metals on the scale that Apple requires.”
Another challenge associated with a “closed loop supply chain” is the question of where materials will come from, if they’re not mined, as, in the words of Alex King, “[t]hey will certainly not be able to make new iPhones just by recycling the materials in old iPhones. Their recycled materials will most likely come from other kinds of post-consumer scrap.”
Meanwhile, Apple’s announcement is strategically smart, says Kyle Wiens, CEO for iFixit, precisely because it is ambitious yet vague and has no specific timeline: “It’s 100 percent unattainable today, but it’s a goal that lets them claim progress toward it without proving anything to the rest of us, because it’s a metric that’s independently unverifiable.”
For the time being, however, with Apple’s promise currently being “no more meaningful than say, SpaceX hopes to eventually colonize Mars,” as Koebler bluntly phrases it, policy makers should work towards creating a policy framework that fosters both recycling as well as the responsible harnessing of mineral resources we need today and will increasingly rely on in the future.