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Apple's Promise to End Rare Earth Mineral Mining Is '100 Percent Unattainable Today'

Apple says it'll end mining 'one day.' Recycling scientists say that day is not coming soon.

Apple said Wednesday it wants to stop mining the Earth entirely in pursuit of an iPhone made completely out of recyclable materials.

"Can we one day stop mining the Earth altogether?," Apple asks at the top of its new Environmental Responsibility Report. It's a laudable goal, but it's currently just a platitude—no more meaningful than say, SpaceX hopes to eventually colonize Mars.

If attempted in earnest, the world's largest company will surely spur innovation in mining practices and electronics recycling. But Apple has provided no roadmap of how it will begin to recycle many of the dozens of rare earth elements that scientists have thus far deemed impractical to recover.

The goal of a mining-free iPhone is not only far off; at the moment, it's scientifically impossible. So, good idea, Apple. Now get to work.

Image: Apple

"It's a noble promise, and it sets a real 'stretch goal' for the company," Alex King, director of the Critical Materials Institute at the Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory, told me. Recycling aluminum is easy, but there is currently no strategy for how to recycle rare earth metals. "The current iPhone models use somewhere around 60 or 65 distinct chemical elements, most of which are not recycled at all today and only come from mines."

Apple says it has created "risk profiles" for 44 elements within the iPhone and its other products, based on "environmental, social, and supply risk factors spanning the life of each material," and that it plans to "invest in research" for recycling rare Earth elements that science doesn't know how to yet. These are needed investments, but Apple has set no specific goals and has given itself no timeline other than "one day."

"I don't see how they can possibly get the white color they want with 100 percent recycled material," Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, which advocates for responsible recycling practices, told me. "So it's kind of an interesting goal from that perspective. It's 100 percent unattainable today, but it's a goal that lets them claim progress toward it without proving anything to the rest of us, because it's a metric that's independently unverifiable."

Aerial view of a copper mine in Chile. Image: Jason Koebler

Benjamin Sprecher, who is researching rare earth mineral recycling at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, told me "there is no recycling infrastructure in place to produce some of these metals on the scale that Apple requires." Neodymium, for instance, which is used in the iPhone's speakers, has only been recycled in small quantities in proof-of-concept research studies at universities.

"One needs to collect a large volume of waste electronics, and refine the recovered contaminated metals to the purity levels necessary for the electronics industry," Sprecher said. "This is usually more expensive than simply mining the metals."

There's also no indication of where Apple would actually be able to source rare earth metals from: Recycling is not a one-to-one proposition and the vast majority of iPhones and MacBooks are not ultimately returned to Apple to be dismantled. "They will certainly not be able to make new iPhones just by recycling the materials in old iPhones," King said. "Their recycled materials will most likely come from other kinds of post-consumer scrap."

Both researchers said Apple's goals will likely be possible sometime down the line, and both said that the company should be cheered for throwing its weight for trying to spur innovation in the recycling industry.

A lithium mine in Chile that iPhone lithium ion batteries are sourced from. Image: Jason Koebler

At the same time, Apple artificially hampers the recycling of its own products, and has opposed right to repair legislation that would make it easier to extend the life of the products it makes today.

"Technology is really complex; it is sophisticated to make it work, to ensure that you have security and privacy, [and] that somebody isn't giving you bad parts," Apple VP of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives Lisa Jackson told VICE News about allowing independent repair of its products. So while it's definitely cool that Apple wants to reduce mining, it's certainly not doing everything it can to be green.

"If Apple were sincere about the environment they would be helping their customers keep their expensive toys in service for a decade or longer in order to fully amortize the environmental costs of mining, manufacturing, and toxic damage to workers," Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org, which is advocating for right to repair legislation, told me. "Everything else is putting lipstick on a pig."