Environmental Consciousness And The Disposability of Tech Products

ElectronicsWhen Apple releases a new product, there are usually long lines to purchase it. But one of Apple’s newest products may not be used by a single consumer. The new product is Liam, a robot that breaks down discarded iPhones for recycling. This 29-armed robot is able to take apart 1.2 million iPhones in a year.

The arrival of Liam says something important about the way consumers use products today. As companies create new devices to replace existing ones, they need to figure out what to do with the increasing number of devices that will be thrown into a scrap pile as a result.

Apple has spent more than three years building Liam, and there are currently only two of these devices. Each one separates the iPhone components, such as the SIM card tray, the camera module, the batteries, and the screws. The most common form of disposal is to toss the entire device into a shredder, but Liam separates the materials so that they can be recycled in a more efficient way.

Other electronics makers have different solutions to this problem. One approach is to simplify the disassembling process by replacing glue and screws with pieces that snap together. Samsung Electronics is an example of a company that has implemented this procedure. For the 2016 model of its 55 inch curved television, Samsung eliminated 30 of 38 screws and replaced them with snap closures. The TVs can now be disassembled in under 10 minutes.

By creating these easy to dismantle products, the electronics industry is trying to rectify a problem that it created in the first place. The constant influx of new electronics has created an expectation among consumers that today’s new product will soon become obsolete. This has lead to an increase in electronic waste. All too often, the waste ultimately goes to developing nations and the local residents must suffer due to the health and environmental risks.

In order to prevent some of these environmental problems, electronics companies need to think about the environmental implications when choosing materials and components for their products. About 10 years ago, industrial designers at Dell Inc. met with recyclers to brainstorm ways that their PCs and laptops could be more environmentally friendly in the end. Dell now encourages the use of modular design with removable parts, which can be upgraded to extend the product’s life.

Right now, 24 states have laws stating that electronics manufacturers need to take back their products for disposal. Either the manufacturer or a hired recycler refurbishes the electronic for reuse or dismantles if for recycling.

While Americans are throwing way more consumer electronics than they used to, more of the electronics get recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 3.14 million tons of consumer electronics were disposed of in America in 2013, which is a major increase from the 1.9 million tons that were disposed of in 2000. However, around 40% of those electronics were returned for recycling in 2013, which is a large increase from about 19% in 2009.

Part of the reason manufacturers have started caring a lot about recycling is that consumers care about it, too. A 2014 Harris Poll of about 2,000 U.S. adults showed that 86% said they wish companies manufactured products with easy recycling in mind. Respondents also said they would spend 10% more on average for a product if they knew it was made out of recycled materials.

There are more reasons to create environmentally friendly products than just pleasing consumers. The environmental impact of products is weighed by commercial customers such as the U.S. government as a part of the bidding process for computer and other equipment contracts. According to manufacturers, using their own recycled materials is also less costly than buying materials elsewhere.

Apple says that for the time being it will be focusing more on its recycling process than on designing its products for easy recycling. To ensure that materials are recycled at the highest quality, Liam is programmed to separate materials with impeccable precision. Apple says that so far its recycled materials don’t meet the requirements for use in its products. Apple is not sure what’s next for Liam, but Liam is bound to come in handy when more iPhones reach the end of their lives.

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