The Terrible Truth About How Your Gadgets Die

Our obsession with pretty devices has made them VERY hard to recycle.
Apple CEO Tim Cook holds an iPad Air 2.
Apple CEO Tim Cook holds an iPad Air 2.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

The sleek, thin electronics of today are gorgeous to behold -- and hell to recycle.

Consumer demand for small devices has helped create a system where products are recycled via shredding, which is very much what it sounds like. Gadgets are essentially pulverized down to their smallest bits, after which relevant parts are scavenged for repurposing. It's neither cost-effective nor sustainable, experts recently told The Huffington Post.

But if design priorities don't change, the system isn't likely to, either.

"This is a really scary thing," Jim Puckett, head of the Basel Action Network, told HuffPost in a recent interview. "It's not a perfect system to shred things and try to separate them. There's so much that's lost, so much that's contaminated."

The Basel Action Network, or BAN, is a non-governmental organization dedicated to eliminating "toxic trade." The group recently made headlines for exposing serious faults in American recycling programs.

“If you're a responsible recycler, you're losing money.”

- Jim Puckett, Basel Action Network

BAN found that, despite assurances to the contrary, electronics recycling companies were exporting waste to other countries -- contaminating environments with harmful toxins, like the mercury from flat screen monitors.

This happens for a pretty simple reason: capital.

"If you're a responsible recycler, you're losing money," Puckett told HuffPost. So recyclers behave irresponsibly, collecting devices and outsourcing the hard work of dismantling them. Puckett described undocumented workers in places like Hong Kong who smash devices to recover valuable parts -- without safety equipment.

"They have to breathe in this mercury all day long," Puckett said.

Puckett said his group will soon challenge tech manufacturers to reveal information to the public about where people should have their gadgets recycled. The overall idea is that tech companies need to shoulder more responsibility when it comes to how their gadgets die.

But problems start well before the end of a device's life. An insistence on seamless design makes devices difficult to recycle. Kyle Wiens, who created the repair website iFixit, said Apple is a repeat offender on this point.

“An example of a product we really don’t like very much is the iPad,” Wiens told HuffPost. "In order to make the thing thin, they just glue the front panel on. ... To get the iPad apart, you have to heat up the glass, but not so much that you damage the LCD."

With iPads -- as with all devices -- there's also the issue of the battery. A charged battery can explode, injuring or even killing the person recycling the device, so the battery must be removed before the device is shredded. And you can't get to an iPad's battery without separating the back part from that stubborn screen.

Wiens said Apple has a number of products that create problems for recyclers. The Apple Pencil, a $99 stylus for the iPad Pro, has a battery that simply cannot be removed or replaced, which basically makes the unit impossible to recycle responsibly. While the Pencil represents a slim margin of Apple's overall product portfolio, it speaks to an aesthetic that creates sustainability problems. After all, a product that cannot be easily repaired or recycled needs to be replaced entirely when problems arise.

"Apple designs things not to live a very long time in terms of repairing them," Puckett told HuffPost. "The construction is good. But more and more as they squash the size down, they are making them non-repairable."

Apple says its products are built to last. In a 2014 environmental responsibility report, the company touted its "take back and recycle" events in local communities. "Over 90 percent of the products we collect ... and recycle are not our own," the company said in the report, suggesting people want to hold onto or re-sell their Apple gadgets instead of recycling them. The company also allows people to bring in their old devices for recycling at Apple Stores or receive a pre-paid shipping label online to send them back.

And no one claims that Apple is the only tech company with these problems. Past editions of Microsoft's Surface computers are actually worse in terms of recyclability, and some releases from Google and Amazon are hardly any better. The latest report from BAN nailed Dell for exporting electronics to developing countries.

All of these tech giants have a lot of work ahead in terms of encouraging responsible recycling. But Apple, an industry leader, carries more influence than its competitors. "Where Apple goes, everyone else follows," Wiens said. "Their 5 percent of the design influences the other 95 percent heavily."

To wit, Chinese phone-maker Huawei's new device apes the iPhone's design down to a proprietary screw that makes the phone difficult to repair and recycle.

Apple would not comment on the record when reached by HuffPost.

If you're wondering what you can do to recycle old devices responsibly, right now it's difficult to identify which companies are going to do the right thing with your discarded products.

"Beware like never before," Puckett said. "We don't have a law. These so-called recyclers can make a lot more money by shipping [devices] off to substandard recyclers, or just plain dumping in developing countries."

Another idea? If your device is still usable, donate it to someone in need and avoid the recycling issue completely.

Before You Go

New Apple Products