Apple vows to use only recycled materials, but Greenpeace says iPhones should also last longer

Apple has set a lofty goal for itself: use only renewable materials in its products to protect the environment and avoid “blood minerals.” In its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report, released today ahead of Earth Day, the company said it is “challenging ourselves to one day end our reliance on mining altogether.” Greenpeace, however, thinks that’s not enough. The non-profit praised Apple’s commitment, but had a caveat: it also wants the company to make devices that last longer and are easier to repair.

In an interview with Vice News, Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environmental, policy and social initiatives, said “we’re actually doing something that we rarely do, which is announce a goal before we’ve completely figured out how to do it. So we’re a little nervous, but we also think it’s really important, because as a sector, we believe it’s where technology should be going.”

Using only recycled materials not only reduces environmental impact, but also helps prevent human rights abuses, such as the use of child labor to mine cobalt, which is essential for lithium-ion batteries, and minerals from conflict zones. (Apple recently stopped buying cobalt mined in Congo and audited its supply chain).

Other mined materials used in Apple products include aluminum, copper, tin and tungsten. In its Environmental Responsibility Report, Apple said “to start, we’re encouraging more customers to recycle their old devices through Apple Renew. And we’re piloting innovative new recycling techniques, like our line of disassembly robots, so we can put reclaimed materials to better use in new products. It’s an ambitious goal that will require many years of collaboration across multiple Apple teams, our suppliers, and specialty retailers—but our work is already under way.”

Of course, one reason why Apple is doing this is the publicity that will be generated if it is able to declare iPhones and other products conflict-free.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that one of the reasons that it appeals to us to use more recycled materials is that it gives us a different potential answer to that question,” Jackson, who served as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2009 to 2013, told Vice News.

This may help Apple foster goodwill among consumers, who are starting to make more purchasing decisions based on social issues.

For many smartphone users, however, a sticking point is that Apple products, including iPhones, have a reputation for being harder to repair than devices from other manufacturers. Greenpeace called the company out on this issue, saying that “while transitioning to 100 percent recycled materials is critical to reducing the sector’s footprint, it is also fundamental for Apple and other major IT companies to design products that last, are easy to repair and recyclable at the end of life.”

Jackson told Vice News that “a lot of people buy Apple products because they know they do last.” But as the publication points out, electrical appliances in general have shorter lifespans than they did just a decade ago and that Apple itself says iPhones and Apple Watches are only supposed to last three years — though the same report also notes that most of those products last a lot longer than three years and continue to get updates beyond that time.

Still, Apple’s promise is a step in the right direction, even if the company still doesn’t know how exactly it will come to fruition. For one thing, it puts onus on competitors to keep up.

“This commitment, and Apple’s recent progress in transitioning its supply chain in Asia to renewable energy, puts it far ahead of others in the sector,” said Greenpeace in its statement. “Major IT brands such as Samsung, Huawei and Microsoft should quickly match Apple’s leadership, if they don’t want to risk falling even further behind.”

“Apple’s announcement comes less than a month after Samsung’s commitment to refurbish and recycle 4.3 million Galaxy Note 7s recalled worldwide, sending a strong signal to Samsung and the rest of the sector that much greater innovation is possible,” it added.