Apple and Infinite Recyclability

Glass and aluminum, fetish or feature?

Apple goes whole hog. You gotta admire that. Few companies have the guts to embrace their own decisions fully, but Apple has consistently done so and consistently attracted criticism for that attitude (remember floppies? Blu-Ray? Flash?).

Sometime in the mid-2000s Apple began embracing glass and aluminum as dominant materials across all product lines. Some speculate that it’s a Jobsian fetish, that the choice is purely aesthetic. But while the look is certainly iconic, and there are functional benefits too, there’s a very rare commonality between glass and aluminum that exceeds coincidence. It’s a property which I believe Jony Ive will take credit for advocating. Glass and aluminum are both infinitely recyclable. That is, both materials can be 100% recycled with virtually no degradation.

Because they are infinitely recyclable glass and aluminum can be melted down and reshaped without losing structural integrity. That’s why glass bottles and aluminum cans are so widespread. The benefit of infinite recyclability is not just in the reuse of material it’s also in the environmental cost of creating usable glass and aluminum. According to The Economist, recycling aluminium requires 95% less energy than making it from scratch, and glass requires 30% less.

Today there are hundreds of plastics available to industrial designers which in most ways will perform just as well as aluminum or glass, but none are infinitely recyclable. The problem is that plastics generally contain additives and colorants. When such tainted plastics go to recycling plants, they are mixed with other plastics which contain other additives and colorants resulting in less valuable, less useful plastic which cannot be reused for the same purpose – thus the term ‘downcycling’.

Infinite recyclability for a clear conscience

Apple, like many other hardware manufacturers has often been accused of engineering planned obsolescence in its products, meaning that these become obsolete before the functional end of their life. Indeed Apple’s one-year product cycle far outpaces the potential longevity of an iPhone or MacBook.

But in the arms race that is the high-tech marketplace, it is difficult to imagine how a company like Apple could survive without updating their models regularly.

My guess is that Apple sees infinite recyclability as peace of mind. Despite the necessity of regular hardware updates, the structural components of all their products could be 100% recycled – turned into brand new Macs and iPads. A clear conscience.

Buttered on both sides

From what I see and hear, people seem to like the new aluminum enclosures. I certainly do. But Apple’s love of glass hasn’t seen the same reception. Glass shatters, glass causes glare, glass is heavy. These are some of the complaints I’ve heard. As John Gruber said, the iPhone 4 is practically undroppable, “it’s like dropping a piece of toast that’s been buttered on both sides”.

On the other hand, glass is enjoyed for its beauty and cleanability. But the discussion rarely turns to environmental benefits. One culprit is certainly Apple itself – Apple does very little to promote the recyclability of its products.

When Apple released the Unibody Macbooks, they made a big deal of the new aluminum enclosure: its simplicity, its strength, its precision. But what of recyclability? Zilch. Even inthis interview for industrial design magazine Core77 Jony Ive makes no mention of the efforts made to improve the environmental footprint of the iPhone 4.

Small bullet-points can be found in the tech specs of most products (almost always dead last) and their ‘Environment’ page has a few short words:

Apple’s approach to recycling begins in the design stage, when we create compact, efficient products that require less material to produce. The materials we do use — including arsenic-free glass, high-grade aluminum, and strong polycarbonate — are highly valuable to recyclers, who can reclaim them for use in new products.

Apple calls its iPad Smart Cover “genius”, but relegates a world-class corporate environmental stance to a few orphaned bullet points. Why?

Hiding the environmental story

Clearly, Apple has spent tremendous resources over the past ten years engineering a highly sophisticated supply chain and production process to accommodate glass and aluminum. But why has Apple been so reluctant to inform the public of this effort?

Honestly, I’m not sure. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Perhaps Apple hasn’t finished implementing the effort. We know Apple likes to makes announcements once all their ducks are in a row. As of today a few products have yet to embrace the new materials: Apple TV, Airport Express and Time Capsule. Perhaps another refresh is due? Perhaps Apple hasn’t ironed out its recycling program which would improve the efficiency of turning iPhone 4 scraps into brand new materials for iPhone 5s.
  2. Maybe Apple sees its sustainability practices as a given and assumes that all companies should be just as responsible. If that’s the case Apple needs to wake up and channel its inner Chris Rock into a powerful new ad campaign: “Niggas always want credit for some shit they supposed to do. A nigga will say some shit like, ‘I take care of the environment.’ You’re supposed to, you dumb motherfucker!”.
  3. Maybe Apple has considered the Chris Rock route and worries that consumers would come to expect infinitely recyclable materials in all their electronics, thereby turning the signature glass and aluminum look into something more commonplace?

Unfortunately, I’m afraid the true reason is more grim. Consumers just aren’t looking for green labels in their electronic devices. Apple may simply be waiting for its environmental stance to become a more marketable factor. In my opinion, however, consumers need to be educated on recyclability and should indeed expect more products to have such a thought-out lifecycle.