Why Apple Won’t Be Able to Stop Mining Yet – by Adam Minter (Bloomberg News – April 26, 2017)


(Bloomberg View) — Just before Earth Day, Apple Inc. announced a new goal: to make its computers and phones and watches without mining any new raw materials. Instead, Apple would one day build its products “using only renewable resources or recycled material.” This is what’s known as a “closed loop,” in which new products are made exclusively from older versions of the same product.

If successful, Apple would no longer have to worry about digging holes in the ground, avoiding conflict minerals and the other messy details of high-tech manufacturing in the 21st century. It’s a bold idea, even for Apple, which can boast several past successes in promoting sustainable manufacturing and operations. Given both technological and commercial obstacles, however, it’s almost certain to fail.

Closed-loop recycling isn’t a new idea. In the 1930s, Ford Motor Co. spent several years operating a money-losing factory devoted to recycling old Fords into raw materials for new ones. More recently, Dell Inc. developed a breakthrough computer made using materials from old devices.

The company and its manufacturing partners have been making plastic parts for those computers from old electronics since 2014, and the process has shrunk Dell’s costs and environmental footprint. For its part, Apple plans to focus on recycling 44 elements found in its products.

Yet while some — aluminum, for example — are already recycled commercially, many others never will be. For example, according to Apple, an iPhone 6 contains .01 ounces worth of rare earth elements (17 chemical elements essential to today’s technology) in components that include the handset’s speakers and touchscreen display.

That’s a trifling volume that can’t possibly be extracted and separated in a commercially viable manner using current technology. (Apple admits that its goal is aspirational at the moment.)

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