Can Apple's recycling robot Liam put a dent in e-waste?

Apple says it's development of a robotic system dedicated to recycling electronic devices will help push the technology sector toward a 'circular economy.'

Stephan Lam/Reuters
A robot named Liam that deconstructs iPhones is shown during an event at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Monday.

In response to criticism that Apple's products are difficult to recycle, the company has unveiled a prototype robot that can take apart old iPhones and harvest valuable materials for reuse.

The robot, known as Liam, is really 29 separate robotic modules that work together on a single site near Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Initially, Liam will be used to deconstruct the iPhone 6 and recover a wide range of precious metal including, aluminum, copper, tin, tungsten, cobalt, gold, and silver parts. The company has plans to modify and expand the system to handle other devices and to recover additional resources.

Liam started to operate at full capacity last month and can take apart one iPhone 6 every 11 seconds. Uninterrupted, the destructive robot can handle a few million iPhones per year, which is just a small fraction of the total number of phone sold. In 2015 alone, Apple sold over 231 million phones.

Though millions of electronics are produced every year, less than a sixth of global e-waste is properly recycled or made available for reuse, according to an April 2015 United Nations University report.

The environmental group, Greenpeace, welcomed Apple’s announcement but questioned how big an impact the robotic system could have, considering that the majority of discarded iPhones are handled by independent e-waste recyclers staffed by people.

"If it's easy for a robot, that's great," said Gary Cook, senior IT analyst for Greenpeace. "But making it easier for a human, who will be doing most of this, is part of the solution."

Under the current program, Apple doesn’t disclose the number of its devices turned in for recycling every year. The company offers customers store credit for recycling certain devices and will recycle old products for free.

Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, said the system will push the technology sector toward more recycling, both by manufacturers and consumers. Ms. Jackson, who was US Environmental Protection Agency administrator from 2009 to 2013, said Apple hopes to reuse more materials in future products.

"We need more R&D if we are going to realize the idea of a circular economy in electronics," Jackson said.

A similar robot would be installed in Europe, but it isn’t enough to handle all the electronics discarded by users each year.

Millions of Apple products are resold to consumers in China and parts of Africa, which have more limited recycling option, said Kyle Wiens, co-founder of iFixit, an open-source repair manual for devices.

"It's notable that they (Apple) are talking about this, but unless you get one of these robots inside every recycler in the world, it's not going to have an impact," Mr. Wiens said.

"On the one hand there is this really cool robot, and that's great. On the other hand there are a lot of realities on the ground that will make this not really have an impact,” he said.

This report contains materials from Reuters.

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