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How will the iPhone 17 be equipped with a recycled battery?

Apple will start using 100% recycled cobalt for its batteries in 2025. Here's why automakers won't do the same sooner.

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My phone has practically become an extension of my arm at this point in my life. And to be honest, I have mixed feelings about this relationship, and it's not just my concern that using the Internet all the time is affecting my brain cells.

As you probably know, lithium-ion batteries are the power source in most personal electronic devices today. Mining for the materials used in these batteries can lead to high levels of contamination, as well as harmful conditions for workers. All these problems have begun to exacerbate with the start of using lithium and other materials in electric cars as well, not just in phones and laptops.

But there is some good news, and I've written about it before, there are more groups working to ensure that batteries are recycled, and some of these projects are starting to become mainstream.

Apple recently announced that its batteries will be based on 100% recycled cobalt starting in 2025. I think this announcement says a lot about the stage the battery recycling industry has reached and its future direction.

Apple and recycling

It's clear that making phones and computers requires a wide range of materials, which is why Apple's announcement about recycling isn't just about cobalt. The company also said that, by 2025, it plans to use recycled rare earth elements in magnets (like the ones that help your watch and smartphone wirelessly charge), as well as recycled materials in the tin soldering and gold plating of circuit boards.

It is perhaps no coincidence, however, that cobalt is the main ingredient in Apple's ad. The mineral has become a symbol of all the potential harm that mining can do in the context of the clean energy economy. Cobalt is one of the main components of lithium-ion batteries, and it is currently mined mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where this work is linked to human rights violations in many ways, such as forced labor. There is a long article from 2021 in the New Yorker on this topic, as well as a new book if you want to see more details.

Phone and computer industry

Until 2022, Apple used nearly 25% recycled cobalt in its batteries, up from 13% the previous year. And as the new press release makes clear, in just a few years the entire amount of cobalt used in “all batteries Apple designs” will be derived from recycled sources. It is worth noting that I tried to contact Apple to inquire about the total volume of this amount of cobalt, in addition to a few other questions about this news. But the company has not responded to my questions yet.

I decided to dig deeper into this ad due to an issue I had encountered in my previous reports on battery recycling, which was that there weren't enough old batteries being recycled to meet the demand for recycled materials.

Electric vehicle batteries

When broaching the topic of materials used in clean energy, many speak of a “circular economy” where old electric car batteries can be used to make new ones, with no (or very little) use of materials from new mining. For this to happen, the number of old batteries undergoing recycling must be approximately equal to the number of new batteries currently being made.

If you are not aware of what is going on, electric cars are becoming more and more widespread. In 2017, the share of electric vehicles among new cars sold globally was just over 1%. And just five years later, in 2022, that percentage has risen to nearly 13%, according to the International Energy Agency. We are likely to see an annual increase in the number of electric cars on the road for a while, especially with the adoption of new laws and policies to support electric cars in many countries around the world.

The electric car market

The rapid increase in the number of electric cars is great news for efforts to combat climate change, but it is causing some difficult variables for battery recycling.

Batteries may last more than ten years in a vehicle and can continue to operate for a longer period when placed in a stationary energy storage unit. Hence, an electric vehicle battery will not be ready for recycling for at least 15 years, in most cases. And if we go back in time 15 years ago, the Tesla Roadster had entered production in 2008, and at that time the company produced only a few hundred cars annually in the first few years. In short, the number of electric cars that will be retired due to obsolescence will not be large, and the situation will remain the same for some time.

Therefore, with the rapid inflation of the electric car market, we will witness a shortage of recycled materials. If all producers of electric cars and telephones wanted to limit themselves to recycled cobalt, for example, there wouldn't be enough of the substance for everyone.

Electric vehicle battery production

Electric vehicle battery production is experiencing a boom period. The global total of lithium-ion batteries produced for light-duty cars could exceed 12 million metric tons by 2030. Meanwhile, the amount of batteries available for recycling for the same type of vehicle will be less. than 200,000 metric tons by that date.

Despite the huge difference, Apple is likely to be able to deliver on its recycled cobalt pledge for a few reasons, says Hans-Erik Mellen, director of battery recycling consultancy Circular Energy Storage.

One of the reasons is that mobile devices have been powered by lithium-ion batteries for several decades. Thanks to the camcorder used by parents, the Motorola Razr foldable phone from 2006, and other devices, there is at least a fair amount of recycled cobalt on the market today.

Apple iPhone 17

The economic viability of using recycled materials varies greatly between personal appliances and cars. The cost of an electric car battery can reach nearly 40% of the car's total cost due to its size, Millen says. But this does not apply to electronic devices, such as phones, so a company like Apple could probably be able to pay extra for recycled materials without affecting the price of the entire device.

That is, the iPhone you will have in 2025 (which may be called the iPhone 17 according to my calculations) could be made using cobalt from recycled sources. Cars may need more time. Their batteries are more bulky, and there are fewer old batteries available for recycling. But we are slowly heading towards a world where we are better able to reinvest more of our used materials into the technologies we know and love.