In an industrial park in Austin, Texas, there is an unmarked building that houses one of Apple’s latest technologies working hard. Within this structure is a glass casing, and inside it are automatic robotic arms that are constantly moving around a moving conveyor belt with precision as well as speed. There are several technicians present too, with blue lab coats, gloves, and safety goggles, hovering around each of these arms. You can also hear a loud mechanical banging that breaks the continuous hum of well-oiled machinery.
Daisy may be a familiar name to you if you are fond of flowers and plants. However, in this case, “Daisy” is the term used to refer to the complicated system that Apple is using to gather scraps of metal, pure plastic, and glass from previous iPhone devices. According to Lisa Jackson, the vice president for Apple’s environment, policy, and social initiatives, the company spends a lot of time in engineering their phones to ensure that they will stay together for a long time. Daisy, their automated system, is designed to make disassembling products be efficient as well as effective.
Daisy is not just a breakthrough when it comes to electronic recycling since it is the one responsible for disassembling the units, but it can also be used to minimize our impact on the environment. Apple takes pride in having green credentials since a high percentage of its supply chain is actually powered by renewable energy. Today, the company is looking to solve a problem, and that is how to stem the increasing number of discarded electronic gear and to limit its effects on the environment.
Apple dropped a bomb back in 2017 where they announced that their future goal was to produce gadgets that are made entirely from renewable or recycled material. Although Apple cannot say when this will happen, it appears that it won’t be long before we see such devices on the market soon enough. The Material Recovery Lab, which is where Daisy is a house, is where Apple is doing their research on how they will be able to achieve this goal.
Taking care of e-waste, which is a category that covers any gadgets or devices that are thrown away, is becoming a huge complex issue today. Back in 2016, there are 44 million metric tons of waste coming from electronic devices, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor. If you are not sure how much this looks like, it is equal to having 4,500 Eiffel Towers, that’s how much e-waste we are producing.
Household e-waste takes a small percentage of the pile, according to the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology. Last year, it accounted for just 1.6 million metric tons which are about 3.5 billion pounds. Callie Babbitt, an associate professor at Golisano Institute, said that the total e-waste mass is going down as companies are producing smaller and more compact devices. However, this means that they are relying on a rare and complex mixture of precious metals and rare-earth materials. And with companies regularly producing new products, automated systems may still struggle just to keep up.
In the case of Apple, the company declined to give an estimate on the size of their e-waste footprint. Last year, the company has already sold 217.7 million iPhones. With an average of five ounces per phone, this means that Apple has already placed about 68 million pounds of materials into homes all over the world through their gadgets alone. Unfortunately, these will become part of household wastes if consumers decide to dispose of them for a better gadget.
This is why Daisy proves to be a crucial component when it comes to achieving Apple’s goals according to Jackson, who spent his five years spearheading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prior to joining the tech giant, Apple. Daisy, which debuted last year, was designed to disassemble 15 different types of iPhone models at 200 devices per hour. Both the machine found in their Austin lab and one in the Netherlands is continuously processing around 1 million of the 9 million iPhones that they have collected since April from the company’s trade-in program.
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According to Apple, there are 14 materials used in their products that they hope they will be able to recycle in the future. The first one is plastic, which we all know can take a century to decompose, releases harmful toxins, and a threat to wildlife. Second is lithium which is often used in rechargeable batteries. Unfortunately, mining for this mineral is also taking a toll on the environment. With the aid of Daisy, the company has managed to gather all of the materials for recycling, and are already reusing the tin as well as aluminum for their new products such as MacBook Air.
Compared to Daisy, traditional e-waste recycling facilities are not that dainty. These facilities rely on bulky machines to break down electronic wastes before they are dumped into bins that contain mixtures of particles. Unfortunately, this makes the recycling process more difficult with some elements getting stuck, tossed out, or lost even. That said, Jacksons said that Apple is aiming to improve not just their own processes but also the mulch-it-all approach used by recycling companies.
There is still a long road ahead of Apple to achieve its goals since it will require different parts of the industry to get it done. Although Jackson wasn’t fully convinced that it was doable, once she talked to engineers as well as their team members, she began to see the importance of total recycling. She further stated that if we don’t make time investing and seeing to it that the hardware is used for a long time, with materials capable of being recycled, e-waste is a problem that will not be solved.