Liam the recycling robot is great, but every other design decision Apple has made suggests it doesn’t care about the environmental toll its products take.
Apple is rightly getting some adulation for its new robot that can autonomously disassemble new iPhones so that their components can be recycled. The company could instead use a much simpler move to signal that it's actually dedicated to reducing its environmental impact: Apple should start selling screwdrivers.
Running at full speed, the robot, Liam, is capable of disassembling 1.2 million iPhones every year. As many have already pointed out, Apple sells roughly 230 million iPhones annually. Unless Apple starts mass producing Liams and sending them out to independent recycling facilities—which isn't happening anytime soon considering the robot is proprietary, very large, and very expensive—Liam is unlikely to make much of a dent in overall smartphone recycling numbers worldwide.
As iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens points out in an op-ed in Wired, most of those phones aren't ever going to make their way back to Apple or Liam: "Once iPhones go to Turkey, they're not coming back to Cupertino," Wiens wrote.
Apple still won't sell replacement parts for iPhones, uses proprietary screws on all of its products, has worked with DHS to shut down small repair shops around the country, and continues to make products and accessories that are unrepairable except by the bravest of tinkerers.
The upshot of this is that it doesn't take an autonomous robot to efficiently recycle or repair smartphones. It just takes purposeful design—the iPhone 6 and 6S are much easier to open, repair, and disassemble than the iPhone 5S, for example—and a commitment from manufacturers to help consumers and repair professionals extend the life of their products.
When the time comes, Apple should help independent electronics recyclers disassemble their products, too. But recycling should be a last resort—repairing an electronic device is more environmentally friendly than the "down cycling" that takes place with the normal e-recycling process—iPhone plastics might become a park bench instead of another iPhone.
But for every Liam or for every design change that makes things a little easier for repairers and recyclers, Apple and other manufacturers take a step back by using glued-down parts, proprietary screws, and components that can't be replaced.
Apple and other manufacturers should make it possible—easy, even—to repair and upgrade existing phones, laptops, and other electronics. A way to encourage repair and recycling over the trash heap would be to make repair and disassembly guides available to customers, repair professionals, and electronics recyclers too.
"Recyclers need help. They're faced with dismantling a dizzying array of products," Wiens wrote. "Let's give recyclers the low-tech solutions they need: Design products that are easier to take apart and equip recyclers around the world with product-specific disassembly information."
Apple strikes an environmentalist tone in its video promoting Liam—"some things can't be replaced," a narrator says over sweeping landscape shots of forests and oceans. But the company has always favored sleek design over environmentalism—the company temporarily lost its "green" status when it introduced glued-down batteries into the MacBook Pro Retina line, which made them almost impossible to remove for either repair or recycling. Apple laptops are also infamous for having very few upgradeable parts, meaning lots of MacBooks have gone obsolete long before their time due to nearly impossible-to-replace hard drives, processors, and, in some cases, batteries.
Apple still won't sell replacement parts for broken iPhones or computers, uses proprietary screws on all of its products, banned the iFixit app from the App Store last year, has worked with the Department of Homeland Security to raid and shut down small repair shops around the country, and continues to make many products and accessories that are unrepairable except by the bravest of tinkerers.
The replacement parts, repair guides, and custom repair tools that iFixit sells are products and services that Apple and other manufacturers should have been offering from the start. So, yes, Apple's Liam is a good step forward, a sign that Apple is beginning to think about the environmental toll its products are taking on the Earth. You know what would be a more important sign that it cares? If the next iPhone came with a screwdriver.