Apple hits clean-tech home stretch with iPhone-stripping robot

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2016

Technology giant Apple Inc. is making another clean energy push with the help of a robot that dismantles iPhones.

Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, yesterday said during a webcast event in Cupertino, Calif., that 93 percent of the company’s global facilities — including data centers and stores — now run on renewable energy.

While short of the company’s 100 percent renewable energy goal from two years ago, Apple said it has reached that threshold in 23 countries, including the United States.

Jackson highlighted numerous company initiatives on renewables, including a 40-megawatt solar farm in the Sichuan province of China that has not disturbed nearby grazing yaks.

She also unveiled “Liam,” a robot several years in the making that can dismantle iPhones and reuse their components.

Silver extracted from dismantled phones, for example, can be reused in solar panels, said Jackson, who served as U.S. EPA administrator from 2009 to 2013. “That saves natural resources,” she said.

In January, research firm Clean Edge ranked Apple second among companies in terms of deploying renewable electricity and meeting low-carbon commitments. Last month, the company issued the largest “green” bond in history.

The company, however, has faced criticism for the energy and labor requirements of its supply chain.

Nicki Lisa Cole, a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Science, Technology and Society in Graz, Austria, said Apple’s renewable efforts represent a small fraction of its overall carbon footprint, considering the manufacturing and transport of company products.

“Promoting these renewable energy initiatives as much as the company does is a climate red herring,” Cole, who is writing a book on the company, said in an email.

Liam, the 29-armed robotic system, is a “win for the planet,” although its impact is uncertain considering the small reach of the project to date, Cole said. Liam’s influence will depend on the degree Apple reuses the materials for its own products, she said. The Liam system currently is operational at Apple’s headquarters and is expected to be expanded to Europe, according to Reuters.

Gary Cook, senior IT analyst for Greenpeace, added that Apple, like many manufacturers, uses very little recycled content in its products.

“As Liam is still an R&D project, its actual impact of the number of phone’s recycled in the near term will be minimal but could certainly play a bigger role in the longer term as a catalyst to develop alternatives to the shredders that are the standard in the e-waste sector,” Cook said.

Last month, Lux Research Inc. reported that Apple and other large technology companies may be underestimating the carbon footprints of their data centers by up to 25 percent (Greenwire, Feb. 4).