Today, smartphones are made with dozens of materials—from gold and silver to phosphorus and titanium—mined in processes that are often environmentally and socially destructive. But all of those materials could eventually be recovered from old electronics and reused for new products.
At e-waste recycling plants now, old electronics go through shredders that tear up the device before the materials are sorted and sold on the commodities market. The process of shredding makes full recovery impossible; valuable rare earth minerals used as magnets in the iPhone’s speaker, for example, can attach themselves to other metal during the process and be lost.
Apple (of course) has a better solution for recovering precious metals. The tech giant has created a customized robot named Daisy that can disassemble as many as 200 old phones in an hour and extract cobalt from them. That cobalt is already being used to make new batteries, which is a rather big deal; the majority of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, sometimes mined by hand (despite the toxicity of the material) in dangerous pits. Recycling materials from the billion-plus iPhones that already exist makes more sense.
This is one way that Apple is attempting reduce its environmental impact, but it doesn’t warrant all too much praise. After all, if Apple created longer-lasting products that users could easily repair, then people wouldn’t need to continuously buy new products every couple years.