Apple sues recycling company for reselling old Apple products destined for the landfill

14-10-2020 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, Apple has announced its plans to sue a former recycling partner, GEEP Canada, for breaching a recycling contract by fixing and reselling old devices. What problems do e-waste cause, why is e-waste hard to recycle, and should Apple sue a company for encouraging reselling?

The Problems with E-Waste

While many are quick to judge consumerism and capitalism, it should be recognised that without free markets and demand from paying individuals, technology would not be as advanced as it is today. The ability to produce products in the millions allows for new production technology methods to be developed, which further helps to produce even more advanced products at affordable prices. A good example of where this has been a positive experience is mobile devices; something that used only to be affordable to a few individuals can now be found in even the most remote and impoverished areas. 

However, this does not mean that large scale consumerism is without its flaws; large scale strip mining, untold amounts of burned fossil fuels, and the generation of thousands of tons of toxic waste can quickly destroy the environment and more times than not it is those same impoverished people who have to suffer the consequences. Thus, you can be apart of the 21st century with modern technology, but what you don’t pay for in the technology you pay for in your environment.

E-waste itself can be any electronics that are no longer in use whether it be old smartphones, laptops, PCs, useless gadgets, or last years Apples iPhone because a new one just came out as you bought the most recent model. In the past, the vast majority of e-waste would be destined for the landfill, and this waste would often contain harmful elements and compounds including lead, mercury, and cadmium. Thus, over time, leach into the surrounding ground and can contaminate underground water sources if left unchecked. Of course, e-waste also pollutes the surrounding ground making it unusable for agricultural and residential purposes, which is why governments and regulatory bodies, such as the EU, have introduced increasingly strict rules on what chemicals can be present in a product. 

Why is e-waste hard to recycle?

Generally speaking, recycling aims to reuse as much material as possible to minimise mining and other material extraction from the environment. However, recycling is no small feat, and this is often reflected in the cost to reuse materials (for example, it is cheaper to make new glass than it is to recycle glass). One of the reasons that make recycling a challenge is the need to separate materials that may be chemically bonded together. For example, electronics contain precious and valuable materials such as gold, silver, and platinum, but removing these from electronics is a costly, and often very toxic procedure. Removing other materials from electronics such as copper can also be extremely difficult, and is often not done. Recycling components was often easier in the past when components used through-hole technology, but now that ICs and even passive components are incredibly small SMD parts, removing and reusing these is impractical.

When it comes to electronics, it is often easier to reuse and re-home devices instead of reducing them to their core parts. For example, mobile phones that become old can be refurbished and resold at much lower prices, thus allowing greater reach for technology. While reusing technology is great for those on low incomes or those who want to reduce waste, it does come with risks, including security risks that may leave users open to cyberattacks. 

Why is Apple suing a recycling company?

Recently, Apple have announced that they intend to sue a previous recycling partner, GEEP Canada, as they resold more than 100,000 Apple devices instead of fully recycling them. According to Apple, the partnership was formed to help Apple recover valuable materials in old devices. Still, it is not clear whether this was stated in a written contract or agreement. Devices sent to GEEP include iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. Still, Apple was only made aware that old devices were being reused when, after an audit, devices that should have been decommissioned were still showing up as being connected to networks. GEEP Canada denies that it has done anything wrong, and has even stated that it is clearly shown on their main website that they try to reuse as much electronics as possible. As a result, Apple now intends to sue GEEP Canada for at least $31 million. 

Should Apple sue?

Apple may be in a legal position to sue GEEP, but should it? According to Apple, their intention for suing comes from customer concern with old devices having security issues, and the possibility that they may be unsafe as they do not go through stringent product testing. However, Apple has a long history of making devices as inaccessible to repair by normal users as well as frequently releasing new devices to encourage older ones to be discarded. As far as GEEP is concerned, it has not only prevented thousands of tons of e-waste being dumped in landfills. It has breathed new life into perfectly usable devices, thus fulling its recycling goal. It is more likely that Apple is unhappy with the idea of cheaper Apple products on the market that may tarnish the brand (i.e. through scratch marks, old tech, and outdated designs). 

However, using older tech does indeed come with security risk as older devices may not be able to install new updates. Thus, these devices which no longer become supported can have bugs that may allow attackers to easily steal information, or install malware that leaves the user highly vulnerable. The second claim that Apple has made that these devices may be unsafe also carries some truth, but this depends on what components are being replaced, and the danger they can pose. For example, if internal batteries are replaced with low-quality Li-Ion batteries that are not matched to the internal charger, then there is a genuine risk that these devices could cause fires. These same devices may also use non-RoHS parts that could potentially cause harm to the user; however, this is increasingly unlikely now that non-RoHS components are becoming rare. 

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.