Eco-Friendly Apple's Dark IPhone Secret
It was a good weekend for Apple Inc., which sold 9 million iPhones after its launch of two new models on Friday. Yet while fingerprint sensors and a new operating system might be the most visible new features to come with the more expensive iPhone 5s, in the long term, nothing probably matters as much as another native feature: two glue strips smeared onto the interior of the phone’s aluminum case.
As revealed in a 5s teardown by iFixit, a California-based company that advocates for product repairability, the purpose of the strips (which are on the cheaper 5c model as well), is to secure the iPhone’s battery. They work nicely: iFixit was only able to remove the 5s battery by using its “iOpener”-- a sock-like tool heated in a microwave and then placed against glued-together components until they soften.
This hidden feature should come as no surprise. Beyond the fact that the glue probably offers a cheap way to secure the battery, Apple’s success depends in part on selling as many new phones as possible. In that sense, it isn’t in the company's best interest to make products with batteries that can be replaced easily at home or in independent repair shops. In fact, the iPhone user guide for phones running on iOS7 explicitly states that iPhone batteries “should be replaced only by Apple or an Apple Authorized Service Provider.” For those users who want to replace their batteries, Apple offers a mail-in service that requires users to do without their phones for a week and charges $79 (plus shipping), if the device is out of warranty. This is not a universal approach to smartphone design: The popular Samsung Galaxy S4 allows users to switch out batteries easily.
How does Apple get away with manufacturing a phone effectively designed to last only as long as its battery and still maintain the aura of a progressive, environmentally minded company? Marketing explains much, and for years, the company has promoted its environmental efforts, most notably its commitment to recycling. In effect, the company soothes the consciences of its upgrade-hungry customers by assuring them that their old phones will be magically transformed into raw materials used, according to an FAQ on the Apple website, “in the manufacturing of new products, reducing the need to mine raw materials.”
If only it were that simple.
What Apple probably knows, but likely isn't rushing to concede publicly, is that repairability and recyclability are closely related. That's to say, if something is hard to repair, it’s also probably hard to recycle. Take those glue strips that stick the iPhone 5s’s potentially flammable lithium-ion battery to the highly recyclable aluminum back panel. For that aluminum to be recycled, the battery must be separated from it. Hand disassembly is one way, but it is potentially dangerous (batteries explode, after all) and very labor intensive. So most recyclers in North America rely upon large shredders to smash the phone to bits and liberate the various materials -- plastic, metal and glass -- for separation by magnets and other technologies. It works, but imperfectly, leaving behind bits of aluminum still stuck with a bit of battery, which are often exported, legally, for hand dismantling. If the battery can be quickly removed before shredding -- that is, if it can be popped out the back of a phone -- that problem goes away and both aluminum, and battery, can be recycled as fully as possible.
To its credit, Apple issues environmental reports for each of its products, including data on energy efficiency and estimated greenhouse gas emissions during the device's expected life. Yet those same reports fail to provide consumers with specific information that might help them to act responsibly with their Apple products. So, for example, while the iPhone 5s’s environmental report details how much carbon dioxide will be released during the phone's expected life cycle, it doesn’t specify what that lifespan might be. To be fair, different individuals use -- and abuse -- their phones to different degrees. Still, who can truly measure an iPhone’s real and potential impact without knowing its designed approximate lifespan? This information would certainly be useful to consumers interested in possibly replacing batteries, for both environmental and financial reasons.
Apple may also be missing a business opportunity. As the American automotive industry demonstrated long ago, there’s real money to be made in making, selling and installing parts in expensive but repairable products. No doubt the smartphone industry has different cost structures, customer pressures and pricing models. But as Bloomberg Businessweek reported earlier this month, independent iPhone and other mobile phone repair and refurbishing is a $1 billion industry in the U.S.
Apple appears ready to continue betting that a customer who thinks nothing of buying and replacing the AAA batteries necessary to power $299 Beats by Dr. Dre headphones won’t notice that he can’t do the same with his $199 (with a service plan) iPhone 5s. But the company has a lot of good, and responsible, reasons to start thinking about how it can make money off the old and repairable. Eliminating difficult-to-fix features like glued-in batteries would be a good place to start.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg's World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)