Yesterday Apple announced a trio of new iPhones. One features the iPhone’s biggest display ever. Another, the best single-lens camera the company has ever released. All three will run the complicated AI behind iOS as much as nine times faster than the last generation. And yet, as has become the ritual of Apple events, the announcements all felt pretty dull. Whatever iPhone innovations Apple announces, it simply doesn’t delight or shock us anymore.
Yet the company is still relentlessly pursuing the perfect iPhone. It’s just that, to Apple, that iPhone’s future isn’t in the features it sells the hardest–the animoji, for instance. It’s in creating a smartphone that’s a closed-loop device, completely circular in its economy. If you listened closely during the keynote on Wednesday, you could hear Apple teasing this idea, focusing on the materials, like plastics and tins, as well as how it plans to recycle these materials from each successive generation of phone. For Apple, the platonic ideal of the iPhone is one that it can dissect, melt down, and sell back to you anew.
To many, this will come as no revelation. Smartphones have a terrible environmental footprint, and Apple has been working to reclaim materials in its products for a long time. Meanwhile, Apple now sells over 200 million iPhones a year, making their recyclability an imperative. When unibody construction debuted in 2008 Macbooks, offering a new sleek seamless design, its greatest promise was that the metal could be melted down and recast into another. Over time, Apple has quietly increased the recyclability of its phone components. Onstage, Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of environment, policy, and social initiatives, re-outlined a promise the company made in 2017: “We hope to one day eliminate our need to mine new materials from the Earth,” she said. “As you can imagine, this is a massive effort.”
During the event, the company emphasized the ways in which that effort is already evident in its new phones: The new iPhone Xs has a logic board made of 100% recycled tin, which Jackson said will prevent the mining of over 10,000 tons of ore next year. Other parts of the phone will use some recycled plastic. Apple is also introducing incentives to convince iPhone owners to return their phones to the company: The GiveBack program, announced in August and covered onstage this week, offers users a rebate toward a new iPhone when handing in their old device.
However, recycling the high-end materials in a phone for reuse isn’t nearly as simple as recycling is for most of the industry. As Jackson told PopSci this year, your typical phone, when recycled, has its glass crushed, aluminum sold for scrap, and much of the remaining plastic and metal shredded. “It has some value, but not a particularly high level. It’s not going back into an electronic,” she said.
That’s why earlier this year, Apple introduced Daisy, a smart robotic arm that can disassemble nine different models of iPhone, at a rate of 200 units per hour, while sorting and keeping their core components intact. “Using Daisy, we can reuse those recycled materials in future products,” she said onstage, this week. “And the more we do this, the less we’ll have to mine for more.”
Jackson has even hinted that Apple would be willing to license Daisy technology to other companies without profit margins, in an effort to move product recycling forward across the industry. That said, as of April, there was just one Daisy robot in existence in Austin, so it’s unlikely Apple has scaled the technology yet.
The focus on recyclability could be interpreted as defensive PR for Apple, which, despite a Supplier Code of Conduct that states “all workers in our supply chain deserve a fair and ethical workplace,” can fall short. Last year, the Los Angeles Times accused Apple of sourcing minerals from mines with unethical–and even child–labor practices.
But bigger picture, a fully recyclable iPhone is looking more and more like an economic necessity to Apple. One study from eight Chinese recycling plants found it was 13 times cheaper to pull materials from waste than to mine it anew–which makes sense, if you consider that it takes an estimated 75 pounds of rock to produce the 100 grams of minerals inside an iPhone. Meanwhile, the most precious materials inside our smartphones are only growing more finite and more expensive. The price of cobalt, which is a core component in lithium ion batteries, has nearly quadrupled since 2015. These costs add up substantially. The material cost of the iPhone 6S Plus has been estimated at $231.50, whereas the iPhone 8 Plus skyrocketed to $288.
That’s why for Apple–if not all of its consumers–a closed-loop iPhone is the perfect iPhone. Imagine the opportunity to upgrade without waste, or the psychic guilt of people across the globe putting their lives at risk for your convenience. It would turn the iPhone into a commodity like Diet Coke, which was invented to be a sinless indulgence that, rather than curbing our desire to over-consume, feeds it. If Apple plays its cards right, it will always be able to sell us a newer iPhone–even if the plastic and tin is old.