Apple has new plans to use more recycled metals in its devices. By 2025, the company plans to use 100 percent recycled cobalt in the batteries it designs. By the same date, it says magnets in its devices will contain entirely recycled rare earth elements. And circuit boards Apple designs will also be made with entirely recycled tin soldering and gold plating.
The tech industry has been under scrutiny for years for its hunger for mined materials, which inflicts harm on people and the environment. Apple and other companies have struggled with allegations of human rights violations along their supply chains for cobalt in particular, called “the blood diamond of batteries.”
The tech industry has been under scrutiny for years for its hunger for mined materials
Investigations by Amnesty International and Sky News in 2016 and 2017 discovered children working under dangerous conditions to mine cobalt that likely made its way into Apple products and other consumer electronics. Tesla and several other tech companies faced a lawsuit over allegations of child labor in 2019, although a federal court dismissed the case in 2021.
Apple did not respond on the record to a press inquiry from The Verge. But its announcement yesterday says, “Apple sources primary minerals responsibly.” And in a 2021 New Yorker report on cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the company said that it was “constantly working to raise the bar for ourselves, and the industry.”
The company says it has worked with the Material Recovery Lab in Austin, Texas, to research ways to reuse more of the materials in its products. Apple revealed its iPhone-recycling robot, Daisy, in 2018. Since then, 11,000 kilograms (roughly 24,251 pounds) of cobalt has been recovered from batteries Daisy has extracted. The robot is also able to recover rare earth elements that would otherwise be lost in more traditional electronics recycling, Apple says.
Last year, a quarter of all cobalt used in Apple products came from recycled materials, the company said in its announcement yesterday. The percentage of rare earth elements in its products grew from 45 percent to 73 percent from 2021 to 2022. And recycled tin made up 38 percent of the tin the company used last year. Apple didn’t share specific numbers for gold but said that it has expanded its use of the recycled precious metal from the main logic board of the iPhone 13 to more components in the iPhone 14 and its other products.
Discarded phones, computers, and tablets ultimately add to piles of e-waste that are a growing problem around the world. Recycling can make a dent in some of that trash. But it’s not a cure-all for the problems stemming from how a device is made and then ultimately discarded. Hanging on to gadgets for longer, by making them easier to repair, for instance, is crucial.
“Using recycled materials in manufacturing is important ... [but] it misses a really important thing, which is that recycling enables disposability,” says Josh Lepawsky, a professor who studies e-waste. “Recycling companies figured out that instead of just getting stuff into people’s homes or into their hands, they can move stuff through their homes or through their hands.”