When you start digging into the facts about e-waste, you realize that the renewed interest and debate around the issue—spurred by Apple's big Liam disassembling robot announcement—couldn't have come up soon enough. The amount of waste we produce as a result of our gadget addiction is ludicrous. According to Mashable, electronic products may only make up for 2% of waste in landfills in the US, but it's responsible for 70 percent of its toxic waste. And that 2% of waste? Well that may sound negligible, but it actually adds up to something like 2.37 million tons of waste worldwide (here's a daunting visualization of millions of tons in case you want to put this into perspective).
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What's even more depressing is that e-waste recycling, our current form of dealing with old computers filled with toxic materials, isn't that great of a solution. Sure, it's an advanced system of shredding that allows us to separate scraps by material, but it is not an exact science. Here's a chipper illustration of the process for your reference:
There are other times where "recycling" simply means the remains of our old gadgets are sent overseas—it's not as much recycling as it is handing off and forgetting about it.
So what's so exciting about the new Apple robot (which should be noted is actually more of an assembly line as opposed to a singular object)? Here's what we know: Liam is still a large work in progress. It's a solution that took 3 years in the making and still only applies to one particular Apple product. Able to disassemble iPhones at an impressive 11 seconds per phone (as opposed to minutes in the standard manual procedure), Liam can still only disassemble about 1.2 million iPhones each year (since their inception, Apple has sold over 570 million iPhones worldwide). It is certainly not a process that will be the standard for all tech recycling plants any time soon. Another aspect that makes it so inconclusive is that Apple refuses to share just how much they spent to develop the technology.
But what's the larger question here? Can robots like Liam help save the environment through the mere fact that exposure to toxic materials does them little to no harm, saving humans from a multitude of health risks? This is certainly a plus. The largest critique regarding this innovation seems to be that many experts aren't positive this robot can make much of a dent since most recycled iPhones go through independent e-waste recyclers who specialize in shredding anyway—and it's true, it won't. But I suppose the larger purpose of a device like this also lies in its marketing and PR value, right? A more green company translates to a more truthful company, a more reliable and trustworthy conglomerate, at least according to Apple and other companies interested in do-gooding.
While it may be great for Apple's image to create a system for tackling the complex issue of e-waste, hopefully the project will also do its part by serving as a small example of what technology could potentially accomplish in the future to better our environment and the world as a whole. And Apple knows they hold this power too: they claim this is the only bit of technology they've ever created that they actually hope someone else will rip off.