How effective are Apple's recycling programs?

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Apple has made much of how green its business is. But how green is it really? In this excerpt from his book Junkyard Planet (Bloomsbury Press, $26), writer Adam Minter takes a look.

As I write, there’s an iPhone 4s sitting on the desk beside me. It’s a fine phone, capable of far more than I need, but like high-end consumers everywhere, I’m aware that there’s a newer, better phone out there: the iPhone 5s. Whether I need the upgraded iPhone or not (and I really don’t), I want the upgraded iPhone. However, I’m restrained by two considerations. First, it’s an expensive device; and second, I’m intimately aware of the environmental costs associated with manufacturing new electronics and disposing of old ones.

Does it really help?

Apple doesn’t appear to spend much time worrying about complaints regarding its pricing policies, but complaints about its environmental footprint have been a corporate priority for years. Indeed, to its credit, Apple has been at the forefront of technology industry efforts to use fewer, and greener, materials in the construction of electronic devices. Even better, Apple is apparently making an effort to refurbish on its own and, when necessary, recycle the products that it manufactures.

Of course, Apple doesn’t engage in green practices only for the good of the earth; it also engages in them knowing that an environmentally minded consumer—like me—is much more likely to buy a phone from a company that promises to take back and recycle an old one.

The FAQ for the Apple Recycling Program includes this text: “By participating in the Apple Recycling Program you are helping the environment by extending the useful life of products that have value in the secondary electronics market. You are also ensuring that products that have reached the end of their useful life are recycled in an environmentally responsible manner in North America.”

Apple's recycling program: Sounds good. But is it?

The phrasing is interesting: Note how Apple claims to recycle in North America, but gives no details on where it refurbishes and sells refurbished equipment. More likely than not, the refurbishment takes place outside North America (Apple responded to my inquiries, but would not reveal the location of the refurbishment facilities), where labor costs make the work affordable—and customers for lower-cost Apple products are plentiful. I have no problem with that: Offering technically oriented employment to people in poor countries is a good thing. Offering refurbished goods to people who can’t afford new is an even better thing.

I input the details of my current phone into the Apple website, and it informs me that I’ll receive a $215 gift card in exchange for it—$215 that I’m free to apply to an iPhone 5. It’s a great deal for me: I’ll save money on a new phone with the knowledge that I’ve behaved in a green, sustainable manner. But is it really such a hot deal for the planet?

Get out of jail free

The January 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology contained the results of two experiments that should concern anyone who embraces recycling as a means to preserve natural resources and promote a sustainable lifestyle.

In the first, researchers asked study participants to evaluate a new product—in this case, scissors—by cutting up paper in various, preordained configurations. Half of the study participants did the evaluation in the presence of a trash bin only, and half did it in the presence of a trash bin and a recycling bin. The results were troubling: Those who performed the task in the presence of a recycling bin used twice as much paper as those who could only throw their excess paper in a trash bin. “This suggests that the addition of a recycling option can lead to increased resource usage,” wrote the authors.

The second experiment took place in a more natural setting: a university men’s room. For 15 days, the researchers measured the daily number of paper hand towels tossed into the trash bins positioned next to the sinks. Then they repeated the experiment by adding a recycling bin and “signs indicating that certain campus restrooms were participating in a paper hand towel recycling program and that any used hand towels placed in the bin would be recycled.”

After 15 days, the researchers ran the data and found that restroom visitors used approximately half a hand towel more when a recycling bin was present than when there was only a trash bin. That may not seem like much, but consider: on an average day, 100 people visited the restroom, meaning that—on average— the recycling bin (and associated signage) likely contributed to the use of an additional 50 paper hand towels per day. Extend that usage out to the 250 business days per year that the restroom is used, and in that one university restroom an additional 12,500 towels would, theoretically, be tossed into the recycling bin, annually!

Isn’t recycling supposed to promote conservation and preserve the environment? Why are people using more hand towels if a recycling bin is present? And does this have anything to do with my newfound willingness to buy an iPhone when I don’t need to replace my current one?

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Cardboard and paper cannot be recycled infinitely. Depending on the type of paper, the individual fibers can only survive intact for perhaps six or seven trips through the energy-intensive process required to turn them into new boxes and new sheets of paper. Likewise, many plastics can only survive one turn through the recycling process before having to be “down-cycled” into unrecyclable products like plastic lumber for backyard decks.

Metals are a different story. Theoretically, a copper wire can be recycled indefinitely, but that assumes the wire itself is easy to harvest. Extracting copper from a power cable is a relatively easy process; extracting copper from an iPod is quite difficult and usually results in some loss—especially when done by recyclers in the developed world who depend on shredders and high-tech to sort the wires from the rest of the materials. However, even relatively simple, well-trod recycling processes, like the one used to recycle an old beer can into a new one, result in some loss of metal along the way, ranging from cans that fall off trucks to metal vaporized in furnaces.
It isn't practical to recycle every component of the iPhone.

Then there are the things that we’d like to think are recyclable, but simply aren’t. Take, for example, an iPhone screen. Glass, in general, is an easily recycled substance that often isn’t for one very simple reason: the primary ingredient—sand—is cheap, and thus there’s little commercial incentive for a business to seek out and remelt used glass.

Of course, an iPhone touchscreen isn’t made from the same glass as a beer bottle. Rather, it contains a range of so-called rare earth elements, including indium, a valuable mineral that—at the time I write this chapter— costs more than $200 per pound. Alas, there is no commercially viable means of extracting indium from touch-screen glass, and there is unlikely to be one (the amount of indium in a touch screen doesn’t amount to more than a pinch, rendering its extraction a very dubious business indeed). For the foreseeable future, indium—one of the rarest of elements—will likely be mined, used in a single iPhone, and then lost for good.

Nothing—nothing—is 100 percent recyclable, and many things, including things we think are recyclable, like iPhone touch screens, are unrecyclable. Everyone from the local junkyard to Apple to the U.S. government would be doing the planet a very big favor if they stopped implying otherwise, and instead conveyed a more realistic picture of what recycling can and can’t do.

Apple gets generally good marks for its environmental policies.

Of course, if Apple included that kind of information on the webpage where it explains its recycling program, it might not receive so many old iPhones for recycling, or sell so many new iPhones to sustainably minded consumers like me. It’s a point that Jesse Catlin and Yitong Wang, authors of the two recycling experiments in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, make in the very last sentence of their paper: “Therefore, 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.”

Tight design

If the goal is a realistic sustainable future, then it’s necessary to take a look at what we can do to lengthen the lives of the products we’re going to buy anyway. One way to do that: Demand that companies start designing products for repair, reuse, and recycling.

Take, for example, the super-thin MacBook Air, a wonder of modern design packed into an aluminum case that’s barely bigger than a handful of documents in a manila envelope. At first glance, it would seem to be a sustainable wonder that uses fewer raw materials to do more. But that’s just the gloss; the reality is that the MacBook Air’s thin profile means that its components—memory chips, solid-state drive, and processor—are packed so tightly in the case that there’s no room for upgrades (a point driven home by the unusual screws used to hold the case together, thus making home repair even more difficult).

Even worse, from the perspective of recycling, the thin profile (and the tightly packed innards) means that the computer is exceptionally difficult to break down into individual components when it comes time to recycle it. In effect, the MacBook Air is a machine built to be shredded, not repaired, upgraded, and reused.

The super-thin—and super-tight—MacBook Air.

Theoretically, it should be possible to make desirable, thin electronics that are easily repairable, and easier to disassemble and recycle. Traditional PC desktops, for example, allow for the easy switching out of old components for new ones as technology evolves. New memory, a new hard drive, and a new video card: these are installations that anybody with a screwdriver can perform. They save money, and they reduce— not eliminate—the demand for raw materials necessary to make wholly new machines. Finally, when it comes time to recycle, the old modular desktops are easy to break down into their component parts.

For consumers hoping to do something about the growing volume of e-waste piling up, worldwide, a campaign to demand that manufacturers introduce design for recycling principles into new products would go a long way to keeping electronics out of landfills for the long term. At the same time, consumers can encourage the development of reuse by buying refurbished machines themselves. Dell, Apple, and other leading electronics manufacturers market refurbished products with full warranties; the next time you’re in the market for a new device, why not consider one of those?

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