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Trading in your old phone? Why it might not get refurbished or recycled like you hope

Millions of people trade in their cellphones every year for discounts on shiny new ones, whether through their carrier or through the manufacturers themselves.

It's a financial incentive that comes packaged — but not in plastic — with the feel-good understanding of helping the planet by preventing the toxic chemicals in a phone's components from ending up in a landfill and harming the environment.

But many people don't know how their devices get handled after they're processed for trade-in, or how they recycle the materials into a new device.

As it turns out, two of the world's tech giants, Apple and Google, have similar philosophies and very different ways of going about their trade-in and recycling programs.

Steven Nickel is Google's director of consumer hardware, and he says Google's approach to its recycling program prioritizes the longevity of a device through repair and reuse.

"We want people to use those devices for a long time. We want them to hand them down, to pass them on to others as well. We want those devices in service and not sitting in a drawer somewhere," he said.

Nickel explained that when a device goes through Google's trade-in program, it actually goes through a third-party partner — a company called Hyla — for evaluation.

"The trade-in program is exactly that. You can take really any — competitors' devices, as well, and it's sent to this third party where what they're doing is what we would call grading," he said.

Nickel said that depending on how Hyla "grades" the device, it will either get its data wiped and reset and resold secondhand, or it goes to a recycling facility so its materials can be reused. It all depends on how much useful life the device has left when a customer trades it in.

Google also prioritizes designing its devices for repairability, said Nickel. He spoke about the company's partnership with iFixit, a company that advocates for consumers' ability to repair their own devices easily, without specialized tools or training. This is also known as the Right-To-Repair movement.

He said Google works with iFixit to provide genuine parts and repair manuals, and iFixit works with Google to design its line of Pixel devices with repairability at the forefront.

"The tail end of this is making parts tools, manuals available, but that's really meaningless if you're not working on making this repairable, making the devices repairable for people and making it as simple to repair as possible," he said.

He explained that Google's design team has a scorecard they use for grading a device's overall repairability — it takes into account things like disassembly steps, tools required, spare parts cost and availability, and quality of instruction manuals.

Apple, though, takes a different approach to ensuring device longevity.

Rob Guzzo, Apple's director of international environmental initiatives, says the company prioritizes the iPhone's durability rather than its repairability.

"One of the core principles at Apple is to design a product that lasts, to design for longevity. Because we know that's what is best for our customers and best for the environment," he said.

Guzzo said that by using high-quality materials, the iPhone can stand up to the rigors of everyday life — being dropped, splashed and falling out of a Boeing 737 Max in flight. 

He also said that Apple prioritizes its users' privacy and security over repairability:

"It's absolutely critical to us to ensure that anyone who utilizes one of our 2.2 billion devices out there in operation, that their safety, their security and privacy are absolutely protected and can't be sacrificed just to make a device a little bit easier to repair," Guzzo said.

Guzzo mentioned that when iPhones go through Apple’s trade-in program, many of them are handled by a team of specialized robots: Daisy, Dave and Taz.

Daisy is the most prominent of the three robots, which Guzzo called the "siblings." It can disassemble 29 different models of iPhone into 15 different components that can then be reused, and it can do that at a rate of 1.2 million iPhones per year.

Dave disassembles the vibration motor (called the Taptic Engine) in iPhones so that its materials can be reused, and Taz recovers the rare-earth elements present in iPhone speakers.

Guzzo also said that Apple has an ultimate goal of creating a perfectly circular economy of resources, using 100% recycled materials in its devices across the board, and that these robots are a big part of that.

But Daisy can only handle iPhones, and Apple, like every major tech retailer, accepts devices from other manufacturers as part of its trade-in process.

For the phones that can't be handled by Daisy, Guzzo says they go through a different channel.

"Those devices will go off to one of our best-in-class recyclers around the world in order to recover those valuable materials. Those materials then get reutilized within the production of new devices," he said.

And Guzzo said that even before recycling a device, the best-case scenario is to refurbish and reuse that device.

But according to a recent Bloomberg report, that's not always what happens. 

In 2020, Apple sued one of its contracted recyclers, a company called GEEP based in Ontario, Canada. Apple alleges that GEEP employees stole and resold over 100,000 iPhones that were sent to the facility to be shredded for scrap.

But since 2020, Apple has done nothing to pursue the lawsuit — and if the company continues to do nothing, its lawsuit against GEEP's individual employees will be automatically dropped in August this year and its suit against GEEP itself will follow  in January 2025.

The bigger story, according to iFixit's director of sustainability, Liz Chamberlain, is that Apple was sending phones that could have been reused or repaired to the shredder.

"It's horrifying that in two years working with Apple, GEEP, the Canadian recycler was forced to shred 700,000 iPhones. That's insane. Most of those were probably working or could be working if they had a little bit of repair," she said.

And Chamberlain said it's not just Apple — these shred contracts are common across the entire tech industry.

She said that less than half of a device's material can be recovered when it gets shredded via conventional electronics recycling means.

According to yearly environmental reports released from both Apple and Google that detail the impact the production of their devices has on the environment, most of a device's carbon emissions are produced during the manufacturing process, before it even reaches a consumer's hands.

This means that even though recycling a device is better for the environment than letting it sit in a landfill, the recycling of materials from devices that were previously functioning causes more harm to the environment than if the device was refurbished and resold.

"It's an environmental disaster. It shouldn't be industry standard. And I'm really relieved to see the Bloomberg investigation because I think it's making people aware of this horrible status quo where we just accept that millions of electronics get shredded despite having useful life," Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain did say that despite some disappointment in Apple's recycling program, the company is at least taking some steps in the right direction.

"I think the recycling robots that they've spent a lot of time talking about," she said, "are great proof of concept sorts of things and if they were implemented more widely, it could be really huge."

Apple has said that it's willing to license the Daisy technology for recyclers interested in having their own, but due to the robot's inability to handle non-Apple phones, it hasn't really taken off.

And while Apple doesn't have a partnership with iFixit, the company does have its own self-service repair program where Apple customers can order replacement parts for a variety of devices. Chamberlain said this is great, but that the program faces one obstacle that many companies have begun to implement.

"One of the biggest barriers that we've been fighting this year has been the issue of parts pairing," Chamberlain said, "which is where manufacturers will link a part identification number to the serial number of a device and make it impossible to fully complete a repair without going through some sort of pairing system, like some sort of software block on the repair."

But new legislation both in the United States and in the European Union is working to bring repairability to the masses.

Laws have been passed in New York and in California that mandate manufacturers must make repair manuals and parts available to customers for a reasonable price, and Chamberlain mentioned a bill passed in Oregon that limits the practice of parts pairing.

And Chamberlain said that tech companies have been making things more repairable and sustainable across the board, but there's a long way to go.

"I think it's important to remember that we as a tech-consuming society have to keep asking for modularity and repairability if we want companies to keep making moves in that direction," Chamberlain said.

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Nate Engle is an intern at KJZZ and an undergraduate at Arizona State University studying journalism and mass communication.During his time at ASU, Engle has enjoyed working in the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab, something that has helped him discover a passion for using technology to tell stories in new and interesting ways.Outside of ASU, Engle plays ice hockey on the weekends and enjoys photography, stargazing and following science and technology.