Liam, Apple’s new recycling robot, has his work cut out for him. Tasked with deconstructing and repurposing the 1 billion iPhones currently in use around the world, Liam’s environmental mission will also help Apple save a ton of money on scarce natural resources like gold and platinum that go into every phone.
Taking charge of the final stage of an iPhone’s life cycle, Liam will “rescue cobalt and lithium from the battery, separate gold and copper from camera and extract silver and platinum from the main logic board.” But at its current pace of recycling 1.2 million phones per year, Liam will certainly struggle to match demand. Apple sold almost 75 million iPhones in the first quarter of 2016 alone. Its annual iPhone sales consistently top 200 million.
It’s not clear exactly how much money you are saving Apple when you recycle your old iPhone with them, but raw materials definitely make up the vast majority of costs associated with manufacturing the products. A report from IHS found that $191 of the $199 total cost of building the 16-GB iPhone 5s came from raw materials. Manufacturing itself only added $8 to the final bill. The same phone retailed for $649.
What remains unclear is if Liam will be able to substantively decrease demand for minerals like coltan, which often come from conflict zones and represent the most morally hazardous material in cell phones. If so, Liam should be lauded for his good works. If not, Liam is just another business play.