Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

An Apple Inc. plan to import used iPhones into India looks at first like a clash between the parties as they negotiate a broader array of concessions.

On the one hand, the U.S. company wants to be able to refurbish and resell its handsets in India, where new devices are priced out of reach of most consumers. On the other, the government is rightfully concerned that the country will become a dumping ground for the world's electronic junk while missing out on the prospect of becoming a manufacturing hub. 

Laggard
Apple sold about 2.5 million phones in India last year but still trails other makers significantly
Source: Canalys

For a while it looked as if Apple shelved the import-and-resell idea, a tactic likely aimed at smoothing discussion on items higher on its wish list, such as relaxation of local-sourcing and labeling rules. Now, Apple wants to throw the topic back on the table, according to Bloomberg's Saritha Rai.

Both sides are right. India's concerns are fully justified because there's every chance that the country could be flooded with electronic junk as manufacturers hunt for ways to hit an industry benchmark of recycling 70 percent, by weight, of the devices produced seven years earlier.

Products or components that aren't reused are likely to become landfill, an option that's quite literally toxic. 

That's where Apple and India could become partners instead of adversaries. In addition to having one of the world's most sophisticated supply chain systems, the iPhone maker is ahead of the curve in reverse logistics and pays companies to take on junked electronics. As I outlined last year, Apple takes a similar approach to recycling as it does to manufacturing, carefully scripting the procedures undertaken by its partners down to measuring devices gram for gram as they go through the refurbishing or destruction process. 

Apple's environment chief, Lisa Jackson, talked last year about the expectations and challenges for recycling the company's devices.

It’s difficult, because these are incredibly complex pieces of product.

But through difficulty comes opportunity. The operation is rigorous, time-consuming and laborious. That's perfect for a developing nation that wants to build its operations prowess, provide skilled jobs and make money. To make it work, India will need to impose and enforce strict recycling regulations, include a zero-landfill policy. It will also need to extract promises from companies such as Apple that all the recycling work be done in India instead of selected "dirty" processes and that those companies will bear the full cost of reverse logistics, from cradle to grave.

Sure, refurbishing and recycling the world's electronics scraps isn't as glamorous as manufacturing the coolest new gadgets from scratch, but there's every chance that even more jobs could be created dealing with leftovers than the tokenistic work of putting together prefab iPhones that will still be mostly made in China.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net