The company said on Wednesday that Apple’s new iPhones would use recycled rare earth elements in a key component.
Apple said it would use recycled rare earths in its “Taptic Engine”, a part that allows iPhones to click a physical button despite being a flat pane of glass. This part is about one-quarter of the rare earth elements inside the iPhone model.
Rare Earth, a group of 17 special minerals, has become a flashpoint in trade tensions between the United States and China. The elements are used in weapons, consumer electronics and other goods.
China dominates the processing of raw minerals, and lies through its state-controlled media that it may restrict the sale of rare earths in the United States, as did Japan in 2010 following a diplomatic dispute.
Apple’s vice president of environmental, policy and social initiatives, Lisa Jackson, said the use of recycled rare earths was “unrelated” to trade stresses, but could help maintain a stable supply.
“It’s one of those happy coincidences where what’s good for the planet is actually good for business at the same time,” Jackson told Reuters. “One of the things, which we talk about a lot internally, is just in general, how much more flexible it is that builds our supply chain.”
In consumer electronics, rare earths inhabit small speakers and actuators. The parts are so small that they are difficult and expensive to assemble for recycling.
For now, Apple will use recycled rare earths from an external supplier and not from previously used iPhones. Apple declined to name the supplier or said which products were recovered from rare earths, although the company said the source was industrial, meaning that the material originated during manufacturing processes rather than leaving consumer products.
Jackson said Apple’s scale – new iPhone models typically sell to millions of units per year – helped make the project financially viable.
“We’ve essentially created a market for this entrepreneur, this innovator, who found a way to recycle rare earths,” Jackson said.
Kyle Venus, chief executive of iFixit, a company focused on electronics repair and reuse, said Apple’s move was the first step for the industry.
“Rare earth elements are not being recycled from electronics right now, and that’s a big problem – China has an awkward position on the supply of virgin materials,” Waynes said. “It’s a great idea – Apple could create a much-needed market for recycled rare earths.”
Apple often aims to reuse parts from its older devices.
Apple said Wednesday that aluminum recovered from the enclosures recovered through its trade-in programs would be melted into a new MacBook Air laptop computer. The company had previously revealed that cobalt recovered from robot-designed iPhone batteries in its recycling lab in Texas is put into new iPhone batteries.
Apple is experimenting with ways to recover rare earths from its phones using its robots, which can remove small parts and separate them into collection bins to collect enough material to make a recycling bin .
The company is also researching ways that traditional recyclers, who disassemble devices and differentiate materials, can bend their lines to recover elements, information that Jackson said Apple Is open for sharing.
“We have some innovations that we really want people to copy. So as much as possible – as long as it doesn’t take away some of our other design and engineering innovation – we’re happy to bring along the recycling industry.” Jackson said. “We have started to be a lot more transparent around this technology development than we usually are.”