Apple’s Recycling Program Forced Recyclers to Shred Over 530,000 Repairable iPhones

Apple’s Recycling Program Forced Recyclers to Shred Over 530,000 Repairable iPhones

Earth Day 2024

With Earth Day approaching, Apple is bragging about their “free” iPhone recycling program—you can bring your device in and trade it in for a discount on a new iPhone, if it’s eligible. Or if it’s not, they’ll take back and recycle your iPhone without charging you. 

The timing of this brag is pretty ironic: Bloomberg Businessweek reported yesterday on an investigation into Apple’s contract recycler GEEP, which was required in its first few years to shred 530,000 iPhones, 25,000 iPads, and 19,000 Watches. As it turns out, GEEP didn’t abide completely by the terms of this contract—they were accused in a 2020 lawsuit of failing to recycle (i.e., repairing and reselling) nearly 100,000 of these Apple products. But then Apple essentially seems to have forgotten about the lawsuit, for unknown reasons.

Bloomberg closed the report by quoting iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens:

“If consumers knew the volume of quality products that were being destroyed every day, they would be shocked,” Wiens says. As for the GEEP workers who stole and resold iPhones, he says, “I would argue that they were doing God’s work.”

Regardless, Apple’s bragging about a “free” recycling program is pretty rich. Sure, great. They won’t charge you to recover the gold and aluminum and other valuable materials inside your phone. Nevermind that pretty much every electronics recycler in the world (and we’ve got a list of hundreds of them) would be happy to take your phone for “free.” After all, it’s pretty lucrative for them—in 2022, recyclers recovered $28 billion of metals from e-waste. With more recycling, that could rise as high as $91 billion. Plus, Apple’s program is pretty transparently aimed at getting you to upgrade your phone to a new one, which means its net result is almost certainly going to be more electronics consumption.

But focusing on recycling at all really misses the point of a more sustainable approach to electronics. Electronics recycling is a sad end for an electronic device. 

New data from the UN shows that, when it comes to solving the burden that making and using electronics places on the planet, recycling isn’t the answer—it’s the last resort. When you weigh the benefits of current electronics recycling practices against their costs to human health and the environment, UN researchers found, it’s a net loss of $37 billion USD. E-waste management practices result in emission of lead, mercury, and greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic waste gets released into the environment.

Formal e-waste recycling practices typically have fewer of these negative effects than informal practices, but shredding mixed materials can be hazardous and have serious emissions consequences even in well-managed facilities.

We’ve just updated our page about why repair is better than recycling, with data from the UN and other recent green electronics research. Some key stats: 

Recycling e-waste is better than landfilling it, no doubt. We need better collection, better collaboration between formal and informal recycling programs, and better methods of getting valuable materials out of e-waste. 

A shredder in a Canadian e-waste recycling facility. A lot of the hazards of e-waste recycling come when shredding goes awry—if devices get shredded with scrap metal. If batteries accidentally end up in a shredder, they can ignite and light the whole facility on fire. E-waste facility fires tend to be extremely toxic burns.

Still, when it comes to doing right by the planet, we’re all far better off not taking Apple up on their offer to trade in our phones. Keeping our phones one year longer is the carbon emissions reduction equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road.

Fighting for more repairable stuff helps boost the effectiveness of recycling, too. The things that make repair easier—designs with easily openable cases and easily replaceable batteries—also make recycling more efficient. That’s why California recyclers say the passage of Right to Repair is a “game changer.”

The executive summary of the UN e-waste report closes with this killer mic drop:

Repair and refurbishment should be supported, and smarter designs developed, to extend the lifetime of EEE. The easiest solution for all e-waste issues is still not to generate any e-waste in the first place.

— The Global E-waste Monitor 2024

This Earth Day, if you want to do something good for the environment, don’t take Apple up on their “free” recycling offer. Repair your old phone instead.