Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) has announced that a key component included in its new iPhones will be made from 100 percent recycled rare earth elements. According to the company’s environmental reports for the new iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max, the devices’ “Taptic Engine” will be manufactured with recovered rare earths. That component allows iPhones to mimic a physical button click despite being a flat pane of glass.
The 17 minerals that make up the rare earth group are critical to making a wide variety of products, including consumer electronics, electric vehicles, and solar panels. They are also used for critical military applications including jet engines, satellites, and lasers. Recycling rare earth components is challenging because they’re typically tiny, making it easy to damage them in the process. Apple said, “Traditional recyclers don’t recover these rare earth elements because they are used in small quantities, and technology has not advanced sufficiently to recover them.”
Apple says that for the components, it will use recycled rare earths from an outside supplier. Apple declined to name the supplier or say what products the rare earths were recovered from. The company did claim the source was post-industrial, meaning that the material has been generated during manufacturing processes. The component represents about 25 percent of the total rare earth elements used in each iPhone.
The move is being seen by some as a way for Apple to weather a potential supply shortage if trade relations between China and the U.S. continue to worsen. China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of rare earths, currently mines 80 percent of the world’s supply of rare-earth metals. It has threatened to use its market dominance to limit exports to the U.S., just as it did to Japan after a diplomatic dispute in 2010.
Reducing its dependence on mined rare earth metals is something Apple has been talking about since 2017. The company is currently experimenting with ways to recover rare earths from its phones using its robots. In its annual environmental responsibility report released earlier this year, Apple claimed to be recovering 32kg of rare earths from every 100,000 iPhones it recycles.