Apple recycles rare-earth elements rather than buying from China

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iPhone XS Max Taptic Engine
Recycled rare earths are going into the iPhone’s Taptic Engine.
Photo: iFixit

Apple found a way around China’s domination of the market for rare-earth elements: it’s getting these important materials recycled.

The reused rare earths go into an important component of iPhone displays.

Rare earths 101

A group of 17 elements ranging from cerium to yttrium are described as rare earths. They aren’t actually all that rare, but easily mined deposits of their ores are.

China produced 81% of the world’s supply in 2017, and earlier threatened to deny access to them as part of its trade war with the United States.

Among other uses, rare earth minerals are an important component in small-but-powerful magnets and tiny motors. Apple uses them in the Taptic Engine — the gizmo built into iPhones that can vibrate the handset when something on the screen is pressed.

Recycling rare materials

The Taptic Engine uses about a quarter of the rare earths in an iPhone, and Apple won’t be completely dependent on China for these materials now that it’s begun recycling them.

“This is one of those happy coincidences where what is good for the planet is really good for business at the same time,” Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP for the environment, policy and social initiatives, told Reuters. “One of the things we talk about a lot internally, just in general, is how much more resilient this makes our supply chain.”

Apple isn’t doing the recycling itself. It’s buying the rare earths from an outside company, which it won’t name. Jackson did say the elements aren’t coming from pre-used consumer electronics.

Only tiny amounts of these materials go into each product, so cost-effective recycling is difficult. Consider the challenge of getting out the minute amount that goes into the speakers in each pair of AirPods.