Haptic touch modules removed from iPhones by Daisy, an iPhone recycling robot, at an Apple recycling facility in Austin, Texas, the US. Picture: REUTERS/SPENCER SELVIDGE
Haptic touch modules removed from iPhones by Daisy, an iPhone recycling robot, at an Apple recycling facility in Austin, Texas, the US. Picture: REUTERS/SPENCER SELVIDGE

Austin — Apple is trying to change the way electronics are recycled with a robot that disassembles its iPhone so that minerals can be recovered and used again, while acknowledging rising global demand for electronics means new mines will still be needed.

The company based in Cupertino, California, says the robot is part of its plan to become a “closed-loop” manufacturer not reliant on the mining industry, an aggressive goal that some industry analysts have said is impossible.

Many mining executives note that with the rising popularity of electric vehicles, newly mined minerals will be needed on an even larger scale, a reality that Apple acknowledges.

“We’re not necessarily competing with the folks who mine,” said Lisa Jackson, the company’s head of environment, policy and social. “There’s nothing for miners to fear in this development.”

Inside a nondescript warehouse on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, Apple's Daisy robot breaks iPhones apart so that 14 minerals, including lithium, can be extracted and recycled.

Apple is already using recycled tin, cobalt and rare earths in some of its products, with plans to add to that list. The company bought the first commercial batch of carbon-free aluminium in December from a joint venture between Rio Tinto and Alcoa.

Daisy uses a four-step process to remove an iPhone battery with a blast of -80ºC air, and then pop out screws and modules, including the haptic module that makes a phone vibrate.

The components are then sent to recyclers for the minerals to be extracted and refined. Daisy can tear apart 200 iPhones an hour. Apple chose the iPhone to be the first of its products that Daisy would disassemble because of its mass popularity, said Jackson.

Apple is considering sharing the Daisy technology with others, including electric carmakers. Daisy does have its sceptics, including some in the tech world who want the company to focus more on building products that can be repaired, not just recycled.

“There’s this ego that believes they can get all their minerals back, and it’s not possible,” said Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a firm that advocates electronics repair rather than replacement. That may partially explain why the mining industry is not worried.

“Apple is in an enviable position, because they can do this,” said Tom Butler, president of the International Council on Mining and Metals, an industry trade group. “Not everyone else will be able to follow suit.” 

Reuters