In a factory with immaculate white walls, an equally immaculate white robot arm moves forward, lowers itself, then flips over the iPhone it holds between its claws. According to the promotional video broadcast this past Earth Day, April 22, 2018, this machine can disassemble nearly 200 iPhones per hour. It’s capable of taking a smartphone apart in seconds, then recover the material necessary to manufacture a new device (gold, silver, aluminum, cobalt, palladium, tin). Meet Daisy: Apple’s “disassembler” robot of the future.

Daisy succeeds Liam, a first-generation recycling robot that took 13 minutes to disassemble an iPhone. She will allow Apple to rely less on mining – and thus pollute less – by instead focusing on recycling – in accordance with the principles set out by the circular economy. “At Apple, we strive to find smart solutions to deal with climate change and conserve the resources of our planet. We’re also making it easier for our customers to recycle their devices,” said Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environmental affairs, in a press release.

Since 2016, Apple has offered its customers a worldwide program that takes their old iPhone models, or their non-iOS smartphones, back. It’s called GiveBack. You can trade in your smartphone (online or in an Apple Store) for a more recent iPhone, or get store credit. This reuse and recycle program aims to “give a second life to your device,” or “recover the precious metals it contains in order to draw less from the limited resources of the planet.” The returned device is resold on a secondary market, or recycled if it is in poor condition.

A wall of silence

Of course, this new move begs the question: is Apple going green? In 2018, electronic devices (smartphones, computers, tablets) are ubiquitous and essential. But at the same time, we’re more aware than ever of their environmental impact.

Each smartphone emits 95 kg of CO2 during its lifetime – from the time it’s manufactured (a process that requires extracting precious metals and uses energy) to the time it’s used up (which implies constantly recharging the battery and using cellular networks) even when it’s recycled (which also consumes energy). In the case of the iPhone, according to Apple, 85% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from its manufacturing.

We wanted to find out more about smartphone manufacturers’ green actions, so we politely contacted most “big” manufacturers of electronic devices (Apple, Google, Samsung, Lenovo, Xiaomi, Huawei, LG, HP, Dell …), certain that they’d all be happy to discuss how they intend on saving the environment. But they all refused to discuss the subject, if they answered us at all.

Why such silence from the giants of tech? A quick tour of all of their facilities show that Apple is not the only one offering reuse and recycle programs.

Apple’s main competitor, the South Korean company Samsung, allows you to turn in an old device and get a discount on new phone. Your old phone is recycled or resold. Another major Asian manufacturer of mobile devices, the Chinese company Huawei, boasts of its “green recycling” program on its site, which also allows you to hand in your old phone in exchange for a new model. The Japanese company Sony and the South Korean LG also propose to disassemble, via partner recycling organizations, your smartphone or tablet to recycle materials, or to manufacture new devices. For its part, Google, which since 2016 has been producing its own high-end smartphone – the Pixel – allows you to exchange a used phone (or a tablet, or any Google device) for a new one. The old one is recycled or repackaged.

Perhaps the reason most electronics manufacturers choose not to speak out is because it is such a sensitive subject. Since 2007, Greenpeace has ranked manufacturers based on their environmental efforts and gotten a lot of press for it. And according to the organization, recycling is not really the best solution to reduce the pollution caused by electronic devices.

Major key

While manufacturers all offer a program for the recovery and recycling of used devices, they seem to have forgotten about the eco-design phase – or creating devices that are easy to not only recycle, but also repair, from the get go. Robin Perkins spent last year traveling around the world denouncing the planned obsolescence implemented by Apple, Samsung and others, before coordinating the latest Greenpeace report. He’s settled in Paris now, and from his small office, shakes his head. “The manufacturers have all made a lot of progress, but product design is crucial. This is the key to giving products a long life. Apple’s robot and its GiveBack program are not enough. Everything is focused around recycling and reuse, and so we’re skipping out on the possibility of repairing your own device so as not to part with it.

According to the NGO’s report, Guide to Greener Electronics, over the past five years, “many companies have introduced products that are less and less repairable and scalable, including Apple’s Macbook laptops and Samsung’s and LG’s smartphones.” These often have a soldered battery or a screen that is impossible to replace, making it hard to repair the devices. “The problem with less serviceable objects is that their users are often pushed to throw them away, and therefore to create more and more electronic waste,” notes Robin Perkins.

Greenpeace placed Xiaomi, Samsung and Huawei at the bottom of their list. Apple is further up, “but only because the company has done a lot of work on a whole new issue: the reduction of greenhouse gases from its data centers and from its subcontractors via 100% renewable energy,” Greenpeace said. Ahead of Apple, in first place, is the Dutch company Fairphone, whose “durable and ethical” smartphone, first released in 2013, is easily repaired, disassembled or customized.

The Fairphone model

In the modern and refined premises of the startup in Amsterdam, Lina Ruiz, one of its spokespersons since 2016, talks about the origins of this atypical smartphone with a big smile on her face. “In the beginning, with Fairphone’s founder, Bas van Abel, we wanted to make other manufacturers aware of the importance of an alternative to the use of minerals such as coltan, whose trade is financing the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So we created our own smartphone to show that it was possible to do without it… then we created a sustainable design that would allow us to use the device for years, and thus reduce its ecological footprint.

In three years, Fairphone 2, launched in 2015, has been sold more than 90,000 times, for a total of 150,000 devices sold since 2013. Lina Ruiz shrugs: “It’s still relatively little, but we’re growing and we are already showing that there is demand for green electronics. Consumers are looking for products with a positive impact.” Fairphone’s customers “are usually activists who want to work with us to inspire the industry and push it to change,” she adds.

In Grenoble, Frédéric Bordage has been leading a “responsible digital community” since 2004 on his site, GreenIT. This former tech journalist, who today advises companies and institutions on reducing the environmental impact of new technologies, deplores a glaring lack of goodwill among the giants of tech. “They are in fact subject to legal constraints, in particular the European “three E” (DEEE) directive on electronic waste, which obliges manufacturers to collect equipment they have sold and which are reaching their end of life, and to recycle them. But very often, alas, they do not go further than that.

If manufacturers recycle their smartphones, using robots like Daisy, they do it “because the precious metals they recover (gold, silver, copper) have value. That’s it. Making their devices reparable, providing them with removable batteries or screens that are easy to replace, does not enter their minds, which is focused on making a profit by getting consumers to buy a new device every two years,” he says.

Can we hope they’ll change their business model one day, to “stop thinking about selling as many devices as possible, and instead take care of the environment”, as Greenpeace has asked for years? “Manufacturers like Apple, Samsung or Huawei have much to learn from Fairphone in terms of ecodesign, but also from Dell and HP, which produce easily repairable devices,” says Robin Perkins. “Fairphone is a small company, which can hardly be compared to giants like Apple or Samsung, who invest billions of dollars, but it shows that a different model is possible, and that making a quality smartphone repairable, transformable and sustainable is possible,” he adds.

He believes the manufacturers hold all the cards. “When you look at the financial capabilities of these companies, their technologies and their knowledge, you realize that they are clearly able to find innovative solutions to become truly eco-responsible. But they still need to really care about the planet and our future, instead of just wanting to release a new product every year.

Under pressure

In order to achieve this goal, Greenpeace is multiplying its campaigns to “put pressure” on manufacturers. “They must, if we really want to save the planet, change their business model and turn to the circular economy. But things are changing: more and more consumers are concerned about the environment, do not want to buy a device every year, and want sustainable products,” he says. And according to him, “when we talk to them, manufacturers listen. Proof of this was in March 2017, when Samsung ended up listening to us when we protested the the Galaxy Note 7 being recalled for battery failure but not recycled.” After a campaign by Greenpeace and many citizen petitions, the South Korean company finally agreed to recycle 4.3 million of these used devices.

So all is not lost. For example, LG, Xiaomi and Lenovo still market smartphones with removable batteries. Some manufacturers even seem ready to be inspired by the Fairphone model. In Stuttgart, in the European R&D laboratory of Lenovo, Magnus Piotrowski, who deals with the environmental issues of the Chinese company, notes that the company is working “to integrate the principle of a second life in the design stage.”

Lenovo was one of the only major manufacturers, along with Dell, to answer us – and with good reason: the company comes right after Apple in the Greenpeace ranking. It’s already trying to use “the least amount of pollutants possible,” by giving priority to Post-Consumer Recycled Plastics (PCR) and also offers a program for the recovery and recycling of used devices. It follows Fairphone’s example closely.

We have to strike a balance between profitability, consumer enjoyment and the sustainability of our products; not only because the laws oblige us, but also because the consumers ask it of us. They are more aware today of the environmental impact of electronic products, and we are working on this with the recycling of all our products, but also by thinking now in our European and Chinese labs to make phones more modular, and easier to repair – with removable batteries and the ability to change other parts, such as the photo sensor, for example,” says Magnus Piotrowski.

For its part, Samsung is working on an interesting project, even if it remains focused on recycling. It’s a dedicated platform, called Upcycling, through which the company wants to give to makers and users “solutions at hand” to enable them to turn their Galaxy mobile devices into game consoles, desktop PCs, Bitcoin mining farms, aquarium remote controls and face recognition sensors. It’s a way to give a second life to your smartphone.

Back in Grenoble, in his office chair, Frédéric Bordage says he believes, like Robin Perkins, that “if they really wanted, the tech giants could ultimately become truly eco-responsible. But given the current practices, there is still a hell of a long way to go.” Amid a sea of computers in GRICAD, a laboratory dedicated to intensive computation also located in Grenoble, a CNRS researcher, Françoise Berthoud, agrees.

The director of ÉcoInfo, a group of scientists advocating “green computing,” says smartphone manufacturers “could draw inspiration from Fairphone … but to get them there, there should also certainly be a legislative incentive.” According to her, “most manufacturers must first of all be accountable to the shareholders, for whom durable devices would not bring in money. It’s no coincidence that Dell, which manufactures laptops, and offers laptops that are easy to repair, has no shareholders.”

In Amsterdam, Fairphone intends to continue to winning first place in Greenpeace’s ranking, and thereby create a culture of change among its competitors. “Showing that there is a demand for ethical and sustainable products in the electronics industry is our mission,” exclaims Lina Ruiz. “We understand that for a large company, it is a very long and difficult process to change drastically, but if we prove that there is a demand for sustainable electronics, more and more manufacturers will be tempted to do the same, and we must continue to show it to others,” she concludes.