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.
Image: Keoni Kabral/Flickr
You may have seen a viral headline floating around over the last few days: Apple recycled $40 million worth of gold last year, which was extracted from iPhones. Almost none of what was reported is true.
The story was everywhere, from major mainstream outlets like CNN, Fox News, and Huffington Post to tech-focused and normally very good sites such as MacRumors, Gizmodo, Quartz, and The Verge. 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.
The most egregious and inaccurate storyline goes something like this: Apple, out of the goodness of its heart or perhaps fueled by monetary incentives, took old iPhones and iPads that were brought back into its stores, took them apart, melted down the roughly 30 milligrams of gold in each phone, and ended up with 2,204 total pounds of gold.
"What they really do is cut recyclers a check and say 'Can we have credit for a million of your pounds?"
In this version of the story, Apple pocketed a cool $40 million for its efforts, and lots of this recycling was done by Liam, its just-revealed recycling robot which is capable of disassembling 1.2 million iPhones per year. Simple math shows that Apple would have had to have collected 33.3 million iPhones to recover that much gold. In other words, in this alternate reality, rather than refurbish and resell these iPhones for hundreds of dollars a piece in developing nations, Apple decided to destroy them to harvest roughly $1 worth of gold per device.
More commonly, however, it was reported that Apple recycled "90 million pounds of e-waste through its recycling programs," with much of this e-waste being iPhones and other old Apple products. Of that e-waste, 2,204 pounds of it was reportedly gold, which is worth $40 million at current gold prices.
This is a little closer to being correct, because the authors of these articles at least read Apple's report, which noted that "In 2015, we collected nearly 90 million pounds of e-waste through our recycling programs. That's 71 percent of the total weight of the products we sold seven years earlier."
Apple's report also notes that it is "working with over 160 recyclers around the world."
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. 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.
All electronics manufacturers that sell products in the United States are required to do e-waste recycling under laws enacted in 25 states. The laws are different in each state, but none of them require Apple to recycle Apple products. 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. That's why you see Apple noting that it recycled "71 percent of the total weight of products we sold seven years earlier."
"Twenty-four of the state laws have what we call 'manufacturer responsibility,'" Jason Linnell, director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling told me. "The manufacturer has to, based on some criteria, usually market share, has to recycle X amount of pounds in order to have a program compliant with the law. In almost all cases with very few exceptions, they contract with an independent recycler and say something like 'We need to recycle a million pounds in Minnesota, can you do it for us?'"
In this sense, electronics recycling often works a lot like carbon offset credits, according to Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a company focused on helping people reuse and repair their electronics rather than recycle them.
"What they really do is cut recyclers a check and say 'Can we have credit for a million of your pounds?" Wiens told me.
"The percentage they're actually recycling themselves compared to the overall total is pretty close to zero, maybe slightly more than zero."
Though Apple does have its own iPhone recycling and buyback programs, it accounts for a tiny fraction of the overall e-waste in the country.
"Almost all of the e-waste in the United States is collected by folks like Goodwill, municipal recycling programs, or specific electronics recyclers," Wiens said. "Apple has 450 stores and a mailback program—the percentage they're actually recycling themselves compared to the overall total is pretty close to zero, maybe slightly more than zero."
This isn't necessarily a bad thing—Apple is an electronics manufacturer, not an electronics recycler. And, relatively speaking, iPhones weigh basically nothing compared to CRT TVs, old servers, and computer monitors. Even the oldest iPhones still have utility around the world, whereas breaking down and smelting old TVs is probably the best thing we can still do with them. If manufacturers were required to actually recycle electronics themselves, well, Apple would have to go into the business of disassembling other manufacturers' televisions.
"The ironic thing is most of the gold is in old PCs and servers," Wiens said. There's very little gold in an iPhone."
In fact, phones and tablets often don't count toward the overall recycling requirements in many state laws.
"The vast majority of electronics recycled today are CRT televisions—it's something like 80 percent of the total weight coming from CRT TVs," Linnell said. "Almost none of the states are even tracking the data on the pounds of phones or tablets that are being recycled. If those are coming back in, they're refurbished and sold."
So while Apple is nominally responsible for recycling a 90 million pounds of e-waste, very little of that is actually iPhones, and very little of that is actually being done by Apple. In Washington State, for example, Apple products made up just 1.78 percent of the total weight of e-waste recycled in 2014. In Oregon, Apple products made up 1.65 percent.
All of this recycling is arduous, dangerous (e-waste recycling centers often go up in flames), and not really that lucrative. Independent recyclers manage to stay in business and make money in part because manufacturers like Apple pay them to do it, but also because the recyclers usually end up keeping and selling the metals that are recovered.
"For any manufacturer for a consumer recycling program, unless you're focusing on reselling the products, it's going to be a cost to your company," Linnell said. "Even for the recycler, there's tremendous costs associated with getting, disassembling, and transporting bulky things. Things like gold content are nice, but it's mostly just helps offset their costs than anything else."
So Apple isn't banking $40 million in its recycling operation, it's paying a likely large amount of money to comply with laws. Because manufacturers almost always require recyclers to sign non-disclosure agreements, we don't really know how much this is costing Apple.
So this is how e-waste recycling generally works. I still had outstanding questions, which I asked Apple:
- I was wondering if the 90 million pounds offset by your recycling programs is more than your legal obligation through the various state laws requiring e-waste recycling? If so, how much more than the obligation was it? What was your legal obligation?
- Do you have numbers about how many of these pounds were Apple products?
- Also, do you have numbers about how many pounds of that were recycled by Apple itself as opposed to by independent and municipal e-waste facilities?
- Lastly, how many pounds of e-waste has Liam recycled thus far?
The company has not yet responded.
Linnell told me that, generally, Apple is considered to be a good faith participant in many states' recycling programs, and said that the company has also set up recycling programs and contracted with e-waste recyclers in states where there are no e-waste laws.
"In almost every state report I've seen, Apple goes above and beyond what they need to do as a bare minimum," he said. "While in some cases their obligation tends to be lower because tablets and phones don't weigh a lot, they never seem to miss their goals."
Calculating exactly how much Apple was required to recycle nationwide and how much it went above-and-beyond is quite difficult, because every state uses a different criteria. In Minnesota, for example, Apple's responsibility is based on this formula:
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.