Common Sense on Apple’s Recycled Hardware Reuse Policy

I hit some nerves on Twitter when commenting on this Motherboard article on Apple’s recycling policy by Jason Koebler a couple weeks ago, so I want to talk about my issues with the piece in a little less constrained format than Twitter provides.

The usual disclaimer: as always, although I talk about my experience at Akamai here, I don’t work for them any more, and I speak only for myself.

First I want to summarize that article, because I read it three times and still came away with the wrong impression, until I went away, returned the next day, and discovered what my mistake had been. (Judging by some of the commentary on Twitter, I wasn’t alone either. I personally find the article at best careless in how it repeatedly enables that misunderstanding, but the point of this post is not to argue its merits as a written work.)

The article talks about two separate but related programs Apple runs, and doesn’t do a good job distinguishing them. In one, Apple both buys back Apple-branded hardware from its customers for refurbishment and resale, and Apple accepts Apple-branded and other manufacturers’ hardware back through its stores and its mail-in program for recycling.

Two, on top of its Apple-branded recycling programs, many states have laws requiring electronics manufacturers like Apple to accept e-waste for recycling in proportion to the sales of their electronics in the state. Apple, being a major electronics retailer in the US, accepts a large tonnage of electronics for recycling. These collection efforts are not Apple-branded. When your school or office does an e-waste collection drive, the hardware may be sent through this program to e-waste management companies under contract to Apple for recycling.

It also appears from the article like Apple uses the same recycling companies for at least some of its Apple-branded waste stream and the state-mandated waste stream. (My guess is that there are relatively few major recycling companies capable of handling Apple’s volume, but I don’t really know.) Once the hardware arrives, it sounds like it doesn’t matter where it came from—it’s under the same Apple contract.

The article is very concerned about the stipulations of that Apple contract. Here’s Mr. Koebler quoting a Michigan state report:

“Materials are manually and mechanically disassembled and shredded into commodity-sized fractions of metals, plastics, and glass,” John Yeider, Apple’s recycling program manager, wrote under a heading called “Takeback Program Report” in a 2013 report to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “All hard drives are shredded in confetti-sized pieces. The pieces are then sorted into commodities grade materials. After sorting, the materials are sold and used for production stock in new products. No reuse. No parts harvesting. No resale.

(Emphasis mine.)

Remember, this applies to all the hardware Apple collects, both Apple products and other manufacturers’, under Apple-branded recycling programs and through third-party programs.

This is bad, he explains, because it’s much better for the environment to reuse and repair electronics rather than recycle them.

Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, notes that recycling “should be a last option” because unrecyclable rare earth metals are completely lost and melted down commodities are less valuable and of generally of a lower quality than freshly mined ones. Repair and reuse are much better ways to extend the value of the original mined materials.

Good so far. It quickly becomes obvious that there’s another motive at work, however, and of course that motive is money.

To be clear, Apple’s practices are often against the wishes of the recycling companies themselves, who don’t like to shred products that are still valuable. In a weird twist of fate, I visited ECS Refining before I knew that it did recycling for Apple. While I was there, I watched workers crowbar and crack open recent-model MacBook Pro Retinas—worth hundreds of dollars even when they’re completely broken—to be scrapped into their base materials.

At the time, I asked ECS CEO Jim Taggart how he feels about “must shred” agreements when he sees products that could have data safely deleted before being turned into parts or repaired. He called such deals an “extreme position,” one his company doesn’t like signing but is a core requirement from some manufacturers.

Now none of this is unreasonable—people who care about the environment (and make their living doing it) want to minimize waste, and recycling companies are in a cutthroat, commoditized business and want to maximize their returns. It’s a rare instance where the economic thing is also the environmental thing, even. All of that’s expected, and fine as far as it goes.

The trouble starts, though, when Mr. Koebler omits Mr. Yeider of Apple’s stated rationale for its policy, which is the sentence immediately following the part of that Michigan report he quotes that talks about “No reuse. No parts harvesting. No resale.” However, a partial scan of the report is thoughtfully included below the paragraph in question, and it says this:

This methodology preserves the chain of custody and assures the protection of data contained in the machines.

Now what the heck does that mean?

What it means is broadly that Apple sees itself to have a duty towards the data on devices you turn over to them, or recycle through third-party programs which wind up in Apple’s hands. Specifically, they believe have a duty to keep that data secret. And they’re right, they do.

Certainly for hardware Apple receives as part of their Apple-branded buy-back and recycling programs, they have a duty to maintain a chain of custody of it from the moment it leaves the customer’s hands in the store or enters the mail system until it has reached some safe state. In-store, having done this myself with an old phone, usually the store employees will walk you through wiping your personal data off device before handing it over, but mistakes happen, and there are no guarantees for hardware which has been mailed in. For hardware which I the consumer have turned over to Apple for recycling, it’s a serious black eye for them if it turns up on Ebay, even if all the data has been wiped—because what if it hadn’t been? The Fappening pales in comparison.

I’m less clear what chain of custody means in the context of hardware Apple receives through the state-sponsored recycling programs, but I presume there is some point at which that hardware enters the possession of Apple-contracted recyclers, and from then on the same argument applies as for hardware obtained through Apple’s branded programs.

Now the article does nod to this periodically but dismisses it as a minor issue, and one the recycling companies are obviously capable of handling.

But in practice, the premature recycling of an iPhone or a MacBook is not ideal. MacBook hard drives can be removed and replaced. And the recyclers Apple uses all advertise industry-standard data destruction tools that can be used to safeguard consumer data without requiring the destruction of all of the rest of the computer or phone’s parts.

There are a few complications with the picture this paints. One is that (to pick an example at random) the newest Macbook’s (solid-state) hard drive is in fact soldered to the mainboard, making it much harder to replace. It’s still technically removable, in the sense that any chip on a circuit board is removable, but it requires a lot more work than just pulling a daughter card by hand, as could be done with older Macbooks (including the Air, which surprised me). The onboard solid-state storage in phones has of course always been soldered down.

Solid-state drives are also much harder to sanitize than older spinning-platter hard drives. Due to the way they work, highly sensitive data can remain in them after it has been deleted, or even after the drive has been formatted. (Unlike spinning platter drives where, despite what the conventional wisdom says, a single-pass format operation is fine.) There are no software tools which can fully sanitize a solid-state drive once it has been used, so anyone considering whether to allow a device to be reused needs to take the risk that a sufficiently advanced adversary could recover some of their data into consideration.

However, the recycling industry has not fully caught up with this. My own encounter with “industry-standard data destruction” for solid-state drives while I was at Akamai did not fill me with any kind of confidence. So little confidence, in fact, that I hired an amazing intern and we successfully prototyped a better method (tl;dr yes they will blend). The NSA’s unclassified data sanitization standard (which our process meets) requires shredding to a 2mm grain size or smaller. I think the “confetti-sized” pieces the Michigan report describes (which I interpret as ~5mm grain) are plausibly sufficient sanitization against non-nation-state adversaries, which, let’s be honest, is who most of us are up against, most of the time.

I could go on a lot longer about SSD destruction (ask my friends! I’m great at parties!), but the long and the short of it is—if I’ve promised someone that I’m going to make the data on their SSD go away, no really, forever, nothing short of physical destruction is going to let me tell them honestly that the job is done and their data is never coming back to haunt them.

Unexamined in all this is the question of who should make the decision whether to allow the device to be reused or require it to be destroyed. The article thinks it should be the recyclers. The status quo, which Apple’s contracts with their recycling vendors enforce, is that the consumer makes that judgment, and I think that that is exactly as it should be. As a consumer, both of Apple products and other electronics, I can choose to sell my device back to Apple or to a third-party service like Gazelle for reuse, if I accept the (very small, but not zero) risk of some of my data being recovered. Or, I can send my device to a recycling program, and, if it goes to a recycler contracted by Apple, I can be assured that my data is really gone. In both cases, I and I alone get to decide how I want my hardware handled.

Given the existence proof provided by services like Gazelle, I don’t see that there’s anything stopping the recycling companies, or refurbishers like the man quoted in the article, from establishing their own brands for electronics reuse, if there’s enough money in it and enough environmental argument for it. They don’t need access to the recycling stream, and Apple is right not to let them have it.

That said, I fully support people choosing to give their hardware up for reuse rather than recycling, as I have myself done in the past. Despite the concerns I mentioned earlier about SSD sanitization, practical issues there are—so far—extremely rare. I think for most of us most of the time, using the device’s operating system function to erase it is sufficient to ensure our data won’t wind up in the wrong hands if the device is subsequently reused. But it currently is, and should continue to be, my choice whether the device gets reused or not.



Postscript: I want to acknowledge a couple arguments which I think are interesting but which I decided not to pursue in full detail here.

One is the question of whether it’s in the best interests of Apple, Apple’s users, and the hardware ecosystem as a whole for Apple to let its recycling vendors dump product in volume, and old product at that, into the currently quite healthy secondary market for Apple devices—or the markets for other manufacturers’ devices, for that matter—but I do want to note in passing that it is not at all clear to me that that is the case. I would love to see someone with more of an economics background than I have take this on.

Another related question I’m setting aside is whether it’s really in Apple’s users’ best interest to be encouraged towards old hardware which no longer receives software support, although the sketch of that argument is that old Apple hardware which no longer receives security updates is legitimately dangerous to its users and to the ecosystem at large, and it is a public health good for Apple to remove it from circulation.