SOMEWHERE IN A Cupertino warehouse, a giant labors with robotic precision, its 29 arms singularly focused on one thing: an iPhone. But instead of putting pieces together, this robot is pulling pieces apart. It disassembles iPhones at the rate of one handset every 11 seconds—less time than it takes you to fish your phone out of an overcrowded bag.
Apple calls the machine Liam. A custom-designed R&D experiment, Liam dismantles iPhones and sorts the components for recycling. The project was kept secret for three years, says Mashable deputy tech editor Samantha Murphy Kelly, who was allowed a sneak preview of Liam in action.
Liam isn’t one machine—it’s a factory. “The entire system, equipped with a conveyor belt, is covered in glass. Most stations also have a small computer/tablet attached to the side of the glass, so operators can keep track of the progress. Liam in the photos and video is cool, but Liam in real life is exceptionally cool,” she told me.
When I watched Liam’s unveiling on Monday, my interest was piqued. I’m a hardware nerd. Before I started iFixit, I built robots. Since then, my engineers have beentearing down and repairing products from just about every manufacturer. We’ve even worked with recyclers to build a database of disassembly procedures for electronics. Which means, we’ve essentially been doing a lot of the same work as Apple’s new robot. Liam—with its Hydrian array of limbs—just tears things down faster.
That’s a good thing. In general, manufacturers should be spending a lot more time figuring out how things will eventually come apart. In 2014, the world generated 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste, according to the United Nations’ Step Initiative. That’s too much. Especially when you consider how much raw material and how many toxic substances go into the production of electronics. Letting electronics rot in garbage heaps is an environmental catastrophe.
Apple knows this. When repaired, iPhones can go on to a second owner, or a third owner, or a fourth owner, and the company’s extensive refurbishment program is excellent proof. These phones can—and should—be reborn for as long as they hold value. When the device is unfixable or unsellable, that’s where Liam comes in. The bot breaks down components, stacking cameras with cameras, logic boards with logic boards, and making tidy piles of tiny screws. With precision sorting comes more efficient recycling. It’s a compelling vision: a centralized demanufacturing facility where dead phones go for a new life. Like Foxconn, but in reverse.
The Complexity of Responsibility
Here’s the thing, though: Liam is not the recycling revolution that Apple wants it to be, and it won’t solve most of the real problems that recyclers face any time soon. The hard, intractable problem with recycling is mixed streams. Building a machine that can recycle aluminum cans is relatively easy. Building a machine that can recycle complicated iPhones is much harder. Building a global system that brings every single iPhone back to Apple’s centralized demanufacturing line at end-of-life is impossible.
Apple has been trying to get its products back for years—in its stores, by mail, and by collection. Apple vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives Lisa Jackson recently told Bloomberg that the tech giant collects and recycles 85 percent, by weight, of the devices it produced seven years earlier.
But that’s a little misleading—it’s not just Apple products being collected, and Apple’s not doing it voluntarily. About half of US stateshave e-waste laws requiring manufacturers to contribute to local recycling efforts. As part of these Extended Producer Responsibility edicts, manufacturers must report how much product they sell in those states. Based on that number, Apple agrees to pay recyclers to collect a certain poundage of end-of-life electronics—whatever those electronics happen to be. For example, Apple products made up less than 2 percent, by weight, of e-waste collected by the state of Washington in 2014. Apple hasn’t disclosed the ratio of its own products that its contracted recyclers collect, but it is probably similar.
“Manufacturers in most states are paying for a non-specific set of pounds that can be any brand or any device type that is covered,” says Jason Linnell, Executive Director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling.
So Apple’s not getting 85 percent of its iPhones back. And in practice, there’s no way Apple could ever get every iPhone back to one central location. Those iPhones are everywhere, scattered in thousands of different independent recycling facilities around the world.
Right now, though, there’s just one Liam. And it only recycles the iPhone 6S. Valerie Volcovici of Reuters did the math: Even working at the rate of one iPhone every 11 seconds “Liam likely can handle no more than a few million phones per year, a small fraction of the more than 231 million phones Apple sold in 2015,” she wrote. There are plans to install another machine in Europe. But it still won’t be enough.