Apple’s Recycling Robot Is Cool—But It Could Be Better

On Monday, Apple held one of its regular keynotes—an event usually dedicated to new products and upgraded specs. But Apple execs led the event with something a little different this time: its new recycling robot, Liam.

So, what’s our take on the new recycling robot superpower? Our co-founder Kyle Wiens recently published an article with Wired—breaking down why Liam is a step forward, and how the recycling robot is likely to fall short.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Somewhere in a Cupertino warehouse, a giant labors with robotic precision, its 29 arms singularly focused on one thing: an iPhone. But instead of putting pieces together, this robot is pulling pieces apart. It disassembles iPhones at the rate of one handset every 11 seconds—less time than it takes you to fish your phone out of an overcrowded bag.

Apple calls the machine Liam. A custom-designed R&D experiment, Liam dismantles iPhones and sorts the components for recycling …

When I watched Liam’s unveiling on Monday, my interest was piqued. I’m a hardware nerd. Before I started iFixit, I built robots. Since then, my engineers have been tearing down and repairing products from just about every manufacturer. We’ve even worked with recyclers to build a database of disassembly procedures for electronics. Which means, we’ve essentially been doing a lot of the same work as Apple’s new robot. Liam—with its Hydrian array of limbs—just tears things down faster.

That’s a good thing. In general, manufacturers should be spending a lot more time figuring out how things will eventually come apart. In 2014, the world generated 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste, according to the United Nations’ Step Initiative. That’s too much. Especially when you consider how much raw material and how many toxic substances go into the production of electronics. Letting electronics rot in garbage heaps is an environmental catastrophe.

Apple knows this. When repaired, iPhones can go on to a second owner, or a third owner, or a fourth owner, and the company’s extensive refurbishment program is excellent proof. These phones can—and should—be reborn for as long as they hold value. When the device is unfixable or unsellable, that’s where Liam comes in. The bot breaks down components, stacking cameras with cameras, logic boards with logic boards, and making tidy piles of tiny screws. With precision sorting comes more efficient recycling. It’s a compelling vision: a centralized demanufacturing facility where dead phones go for a new life. Like Foxconn, but in reverse.

Here’s the thing, though: Liam is not the recycling revolution that Apple wants it to be, and it won’t solve most of the real problems that recyclers face any time soon. The hard, intractable problem with recycling is mixed streams. Building a machine that can recycle aluminum cans is relatively easy. Building a machine that can recycle complicated iPhones is much harder. Building a global system that brings every single iPhone back to Apple’s centralized demanufacturing line at end-of-life is impossible.

Liam, Apple's iPhone disassembly robotHead on over to Wired for the full article.