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Apple Leads the Way Toward Closed-Loop Supply Chains

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In its most recent annual report on environmental responsibility, Apple has set forth plans for developing a new supply-chain model, which the company refers to as a “closed-loop supply chain.” By “closed-loop,” Apple means using recycled materials and renewable resources wherever possible rather than newly-mined materials – and avoiding the use of conflict minerals altogether.

A new approach to acquiring raw materials

Historically, supply chains have been unidirectional. Materials are mined and manufactured into products, the products are used and then discarded, and the original materials, having fulfilled their purpose, make their final journey to the local landfill. The entire process is then repeated, with another round of raw materials extracted for a new cohort of products.

In laying the foundation for achieving its “closed-loop” goals, Apple is already employing “Liam,” an artificial-intelligence robot, which is helping the company disassemble end-of-life products and recover components that can be used again. The company is also encouraging its consumers to return old products, which otherwise would have been discarded, for recycling and reuse.

Apple’s top priorities

One of Apple’s top priorities is to find ways to reduce aluminum use in order to minimize its dependence on conflict minerals. For instance, for its most recent iPhone models, Apple has pared down the volume of aluminum in the phone’s enclosure by 27% as compared with earlier models.

The company is also currently recycling aluminum from old iPhone 6 units to be used in Mini Mac computers, and is recycling tin from older iPhone circuit boards. In addition, Apple is exploring recovery of cobalt from Lithium-ion batteries.

Another of Apple’s top priorities is renewable energy. The company has increased its use of renewables to power its offices, manufacturing facilities, and retail stores from 60% of its total power usage in 2012 to fully 96% in 2016. All told, offices and data centers in 24 countries use 100% renewable energy.

A long way to go

And yet, for all of these improvements, company executive believe that Apple still has a long way to go in order to achieve its goals and to build a truly closed-loop supply chain.