Circular economy

What happens to your iPhone when you return it to Apple

Questo post è disponibile anche in: Italian

Cupertino wants to prevent at all costs its devices from ending up in landfills, and sets up a specific recycling circuit.

The second life of iPhones begins in a 24-hour guarded facility in a secret location near Hong Kong. Here, Bloomberg reveals, the devices are meticulously destroyed. The plant, in fact, is only one of a handful of facilities spread throughout the globe, chosen by Apple to recycle their products. Those who work on the dismantling and recycling of these devices are subject to the same treatment as suppliers that produce Apple’s gadgets: strict standards and confidentiality protocols.

Apple sold over 570 million iPhones since that January morning of 9 years ago, when Steve Jobs climbed on a stage in San Francisco to “reinvent the phone.” Even Apple doesn’t know how many of these smartphones are still around, in the hands of second, third, or even fourth owners, or abandoned in some drawer. What is certain is that the company wants to make sure that as few as possible end up in landfills.

In the field of recycling of electronic devices, the goal is to collect and recycle 70% of the weight of the goods produced in the seven previous years. Apple goes further and reaches a rate of 85%, recovering also some products of other brands that customers bring to their stores. This means that this year Apple will have to manage and destroy the equivalent of over 9 million iPhones 3GS from 2009 all over the world. Considering that sales grew to 155 million units in the last fiscal year, the recycling of Apple products is becoming an increasingly important issue.

Apple claims to have collected over 40 thousand tons of e-waste in 2014. Brightstar Corp. in Miami, Florida, TES-AMM in Singapore, Li Tong in Hong Kong and Foxconn Technology Group in China, the most famous iPhone manufacturers, are part of a global network of recyclers that conformed to over 50 rules, from security issues to insurance and auditing.

The management of end-of-life products starts in the numerous Apple stores around the world or even online, where the technology giant offers discount coupons for those who choose to return their old iPhone. After a quick technical test to assess if the phone should be resold or disposed of, the recycler can decide whether to buy the phone or send it for disposal. In the United States, the rewards for still working smartphones range from 100 to 350 dollars.

When Apple partners agree that an iPhone needs to be disposed of, the devices undergoe a deconstruction process which is very similar to Apple’s production model, only in reverse. Apple pays for the service and retains ownership of the device in all stages, from the used phone to the handful of dust that remains at the end. The process consists of 10 steps, and it is controlled, measured and planned through vacuum chambers designed to capture 100% of chemicals and gases released during the different stages.

iPhones to be recycled have their memory erased and the logos removed. Disassembled devices cannot be mixed with devices of other brands, so recyclers must have special structures for Apple, which monitors the entire process. While other companies save components such as chips, which could be used to repair other phones, Cupertino has a policy of “total destruction”, to avoid the diffusion of fake Apple products on the secondary market. The company is reportedly still working on systems to reuse components, according to Bloomberg.

Once broken to pieces, what remains of the old iPhone? Hazardous waste is stored in a certified facility and recycling plants receive a commission on other materials extracted, such as gold and copper. The rest comes back to life in the form of aluminium frames for windows or glass tiles.

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