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Why Apple is not so green: The truth behind its recycling program

| December 23, 2013

It’s hard for Apple fans to resist buying the next new iPhone. It’s even harder when the company promises to recycle consumers’ old iPhones and pay them its value so they can buy a brand new iPhone.

In August, Apple launched its Reuse and Recycling program, which allows iOS users to bring in their old phones, MacBooks, and iPads to the store and exchange them for a brand new iPhone or any other iOS product. The company sells the old iOS devices in secondary electronic markets around the world. When they cannot be reused, Apple recycles these products.

So, customers can now trade their old iPhone for a brand new iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c. The company can attract environmentally minded people, who would get a good night’s sleep knowing they’re buying a sustainable product. That’s a win-win for all. Or is it?

Recycled Apple Products

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Adam Minter, the author of “Junkyard Planet,” says that Apple’s recycling program doesn’t convey the clear picture as its products aren’t 100 percent recyclable and don’t provide enough room for upgrades and repairs. That hurts the sustainability of the products. Moreover, some experiments conclude that the promise of recycling results in overuse among people and, consequently, more waste.

Apple’s products are not 100% recyclable

In his article in Macworld, Minter mentions that many parts of an iPhone are non-recyclable while others, when recycled, result in some loss. For example, copper extraction from an iPod is difficult and usually results in loss or increased cost especially when done by recycling companies in the developed world. Recyclers here rely on expensive shredders and other advanced technology to isolate the wires from the rest of the materials. Even when recycling is done on a simple scale, it results in some loss of metal.

Moreover, certain components, like the iPhone screen, are non-recyclable. While glass can be easily recycled (because the end product is sand), Apple screens contain rare earth elements, such as indium. A pound of indium costs nearly $200, and, unfortunately, there is no way to extract the metal from touch-screen glass. After this rare element is used in touch-screen glass it is lost forever.

Apple’s design makes upgrades and repairs difficult and expensive

The components of the ultra-thin MacBook Air — its memory chips, solid-state drive, and processor — are so tightly assembled that upgrading the whole product becomes impossible. Recycling becomes even more complicated because it is difficult to break down parts that are packed so closely.

Many of Apple’s recent products such as the iPhone 5, iPad 4, and iPad mini use a lot of adhesives to keep components in place. When used for sticking batteries, adhesive can make repairs tricky. “Prying the battery free from the adhesive can damage components, and even puncture the battery,” zdnet reports. If the battery is punctured, it can be replaced, but at a cost of $199.

While Apple claims to be a long-standing advocate of product stewardship, it in fact “lobbied against the legislation requiring companies to set up takeback programs in Maine, Massachusetts and Washington,” reports texasenvironment.org. Apple’s counterparts like Hewlett Packard, on the other hand, actively supported it.

More problems await Apple’s recycling program

Two experiments published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology reveal that people tend to use more of something when they know it can be recycled. It is likely that Apple’s recycling initiative may have the same reaction from its customers.

Authors, Jesse Catlin and Yitong Wang  at the end of their experiment also state, “… an important issue would be to identify ways to nudge consumers toward recycling while also making them aware that recycling is not a perfect solution and that reducing overall consumption is desirable as well.” Even as Apple works toward reducing its carbon footprint, it makes no effort to reduce waste.

With every upgrade in an Apple product (which may be more environment friendly than its predecessor), customers need to buy new, additional hardware (in the form of chargers, adapters etc) that renders old hardware obsolete. This is not true for other companies that make some old hardware compatible with new products.

The Green Market Oracle reports, “Apple’s unsustainable design which on the one hand are part of a marketing strategy that has led to astronomical profits on the other makes the company a sustainability laggard. A business model that encourages people to regularly upgrade technological devices is doomed to fail in an increasingly resource-constrained world.”

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Category: Electronics, Recycling programs

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  1. Tobias says:

    Great article, we touched upon a similar issue in our article on apple.

    http://www.lead-ahead.com/leaders/rotten-or-green-and-fresh-steve-jobs-and-apple/

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