Meet Liam, Apple's 29-Arm 'Recyclebot'

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‘Recyclebot’ Liam meticulously dismantles Apple iPhones to reclaim more usable materials and parts than traditional e-cycling systems. iphonedigital [CC by 2.0]/flickr

For most of us, our smartphone is rarely out of reach — until we want a new model, that is. Then we’re all too quick to toss the old one without considering where it goes or what impact it might have on the planet, which is substantial.

To help whittle down toxic mountains of smartphones and electronic gadgets that litter landfills around the globe, Apple has turned to what it does best: technological innovation.

The company’s newest e-waste recycling solution is a giant, cutting-edge robot named Liam with 29 robotic arms that deftly deconstruct unrepairable iPhones. The aim is to salvage as many parts and materials as possible for reuse and repurposing instead of trashing them. That includes things like silver from the main logic board, copper from the camera and lithium from the battery.

The eco-benefits include fewer new minerals being mined and fewer toxic chemicals seeping into the soil, groundwater and air.

Robotic recycling to the rescue

Apple recycling more broken iPhones
Apple is stepping up its efforts to recycle more broken iPhones that can’t be refurbished or fixed so they don’t end up as e-waste. Rokas Tenys/

Far from a humanoid robot, Liam is actually a warehouse-sized behemoth with a series of disassembly stations that can take apart an iPhone every 11 seconds, according to the company. That comes out to about 1.2 million iPhones a year.

Apple is hoping its "recyclebot," launched last March, becomes the next generation in e-cycling. Of course, tech recycling has existed for a while, but Liam takes things a step further by meticulously reclaiming more usable materials and parts than traditional e-cycling systems. Many are more akin to shredders with magnets that can end up commingling scrap parts. In other cases, recycling workers disassemble electronic waste by hand, salvaging only a portion of recoverable materials.

In contrast, each of Liam’s 29 freestanding stations is outfitted with its own robotic precision tools, such as a screwdriver or drill, which allows it to do a specific task. One station, for instance, may remove batteries while another removes screens from the back casing. At each step on the conveyor belt, individual components are immediately collected in bins so they don’t mix with other materials down the line.

By removing and separating more parts and materials, Apple can sell more to recycling companies, many of which only accept a single material, such as copper or nickel, with nothing else mixed in.

Meet Liam in this video:

If Liam proves effective it could also mean a rise in the number of smartphones and other electronics being recycled. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition cites 2010 EPA statistics showing that 152 million mobile devices were tossed in the U.S., but only 17 million, or 11 percent, were actually recycled. Most were — and continue to be — trashed in landfills or incinerated. This massive dump of materials can take decades to decompose. Even worse, old gadgets can leak toxic substances while breaking down that affect not only human health but the well-being of wildlife and ecosystems.

Greenwashing or truly green?

Liam sorting iPhone parts for recycling
These are the various parts Liam can separate out and recycle while taking apart an iPhone 6s. Apple

While many are praising Apple’s eco-innovation, others aren’t so impressed. For starters, they note, Liam only dismantles iPhone 6s models, representing just a small portion of Apple’s total tech output.

To be fair, the company is looking to create more Liams, Mashable reports, and could eventually build additional Liam-like bots to handle other cell phone models, iPods and iPads.

Other critics charge that Liam’s real purpose is to help Apple boost its green image. In recent years, the tech giant has made an all-out environmental push with the goal of becoming fully sustainable. That includes powering all its facilities with renewable energy (it’s currently at 93 percent) and upping its recycling game through the Apple Renew program, which lets customers return old smartphones and iPods at Apple stores or via mail.

But according to Wired, the percentage of old gadgets Apple collects for recycling is still nowhere near the amount it produces. Bottom line: Liam would be much more effective if he could get his robotic arms around a bigger share of the company’s ruined and discarded iPhones.

Other critics are calling for a more efficient and less-resource-intensive approach: Make iPhones and other gadgets last longer so recycling isn’t so necessary (or frequent). No more planned obsolescence or rush to next-generation models. Consumers would repair fixable devices instead of continually tossing and upgrading. In other words, the focus would be on reducing and reusing existing technology rather than recycling to make way for new gadgets.

Criticisms aside, Apple stands by Liam and hopes other electronics makers follow suit with eco-friendly end-of-life plans for their products. As the company’s 2016 Environmental Responsibility Report notes, Liam \"is an experiment in recycling technology, and we hope this kind of thinking will inspire others."