iRobot Recycler: Apple’s Liam Brings Sustainability Front and Center

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Apple Liam

At its media event on Monday, Apple introduced Liam, a proprietary robotic system that disassembles old iPhones and recovers recyclable materials.

The only one of its kind, Liam rescues cobalt and lithium from the battery, separates gold and copper from the camera, and extracts silver and platinum from the main logic board.

Apple has been criticized for using conflict minerals in iPhones and Liam is the brand’s latest demonstration of its commitment to sustainability.

Introduced by Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, Liam has been tested for three years and became operational last month. Located near Apple’s HQ in Cupertino, it’s made up of 29 robotic modules and is capable of taking apart an iPhone every 11 seconds. A second system is being installed in Europe. Liam will initially focus on recycling junked iPhone 6 handsets, but will be modified to deconstruct other models as well.

Jackson’s role is to minimize Apple’s impact on the environment by addressing climate change through renewable energy and energy efficiency, using greener materials and inventing new ways to conserve precious resources. “Innovation means considering what happens to a product at every stage of its life cycle,” said Jackson. “Liam disassembles your iPhone when it’s no longer functioning, so the materials inside can live on.”

For example, the tungsten from the device’s alert module can become a cutting tool, while the silver can be used for solar panels like the ones powering the company’s operations in Thailand.

Greenpeace praised the initiative but cautioned that the bulk of discarded iPhones go through independent waste recyclers. “If it’s easy for a robot, that’s great,” said Greenpeace IT analyst Gary Cook in Reuters. “But making it easier for a human, who will be doing most of this, is part of the solution.”

Apple Liam

Liam can likely handle a few million phones each year, a fraction of the more than 231 million phones Apple sold in 2015.

Apple Renew is the latest program that encourages consumers to recycle devices at an Apple Store or online, because, “Recycling an Apple product should be as easy as using one.”

Given Cook’s assertion there are 1 billion Apple devices in the world—with more being made every day—Liam as a model for sustainable scale moves the needle from recycle to reuse in a boon for the environment.

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