People lost their collective minds over Apple’s recycling program this week—practically hailing the tech giant as a corporate version of Captain Planet. Spurred by the release of Apple’s annual environmental report, CNN Money declared that “Apple recovered 2,204 pounds of gold from broken iPhones last year.” The Verge praised Apple for recovering “nearly 90 million pounds of materials from Apple devices.” (Clearly, that new-fangled Liam iPhone recycling machine is working overtime.) The only problem: None of that is really true.
“I’ve never come across a story that has been so uniformly misreported—hundreds of outlets covered Apple’s ‘Environmental Responsibility Report,’ and not one article I read came remotely close to getting the story right,” writes Jason Koebler in an article for Motherboard.
Apple isn’t personally collecting every old iPhone and melting them down for gold. And there’s no Apple-owned smelter in Cupertino that turns broken iPads into a 40-million-dollar pot of gold at the end of a beautiful recycling rainbow. They aren’t, because they can’t. Only a tiny fraction of iDevices are collected through Apple’s in-store buyback and collection programs. The vast majority of Apple-branded e-waste ends up in local, independent recycling facilities all over the world. Along with a whole bunch of other e-stuff—from hair straighteners to DVD players.
“Here is the truth: Apple paid independent recyclers to recycle old electronics—which were almost never Apple products, by the way—because it’s required by law to do so,” Koebler explains. "Far from banking $40 million on the prospect, Apple likely ended up taking an overall monetary loss. This is not because Apple is a bad actor or is hiding anything, it’s simply how the industry works.”
Nearly half of US states have e-waste producer responsibility laws that require manufacturers to contribute to local take-back and buy-back programs. “The laws are different in each state, but none of them require Apple to recycle Apple products,” Koebler explains. “Instead, they usually require manufacturers to recycle a certain amount of pounds of e-waste, which is linked to either their market share or to the overall weight of products they sell.”
So, if Apple (or any electronics maker, for that matter) sells product in California, for example, it has to pay to recycle a certain percentage of the e-waste that Californians return for recycling. “What they really do is cut recyclers a check and say ‘Can we have credit for a million of your pounds?” our CEO Kyle Wiens told Koebler. And Apple doesn’t just pay to recycle iPhones. They pay to recycle everything: including giant, heavy CRT televisions and big PC towers. Those old, giant electronics have a lot of materials in them to recover. Far more than something like an iPhone—which has more value when it’s refurbished and resold, Koebler points out.
So yes, Apple plays a part in the recycling of 90 million pounds of material (which is great!). But they are mostly paying for some independent recycling facility to do so—because that’s the law, folks.
“Internet commenters and journalists have been suggesting that Apple is some combination of noble and genius, that it’s making a killing off of your old stuff. That may be the case, but that’s because the company is fixing and reselling your old phones, not because it's melting them.”