Apple uses AI to boost recycling efforts, Tim Cook confirms


The challenge to build a more sustainable enterprise is high on the business agenda these days, in part to meet government-mandated climate goals, in part because consumers demand it, and — perhaps — simply because turning a business into a sustainable business is the right thing to do.

Businesses are taking a multitude of approaches to becoming more sustainable.

Apple CEO Tim Cook in China explained part of the strategy being followed by his company — to put a little AI (artificial intelligence) in sustAInability.

As he sees it, AI “provides an enormous toolkit for every company that’s wishing to be carbon neutral or to lower their emissions by a substantial amount,” he said.

Sustainable business is good business

We know Apple is working hard to build a more sustainable consumer tech business. The company isn’t there yet, of course, but it continues to make more use of recycled materials, has its first claimed carbon-neutral product in the form of the Apple Watch, and is on a drive to develop circular manufacturing tech across its business by 2030. It is already carbon neutral across its own internal operations (including stores and offices).

The company also wants all companies to be required to be more transparent about their carbon output.

Its most recently released Mac, the MacBook Air, boasts new records for sustainability, as it is the first Apple product to be made with 50% recycled content. The company has a track record that puts it far ahead of competitors on this, and while no one is perfect, it has won praise from environmental activists for at least trying to do the right thing.

Cook echoes industry thinking

But Cook’s determination that AI has a part to play in delivering more sustainable business practises echoes emerging thinking across enterprises concerned with polishing their corporate social responsibility (CSR) credentials.


Microsoft’s AI for Earth program offers AI tools for ecosystem monitoring and management; Google’s DeepMind uses AI to improve energy management in data centers, delivering a 40% reduction in cooling costs; Nokia has its own AI aimed at carriers that is designed to reduce the cost and carbon emissions from network related energy consumption; the list goes on.

Just this month at Mobile World Congress, Cisco and European carrier Orange signed an agreement to work together toward Net Zero, including information sharing between both firms to help measure and mitigate those all-important Scope 3 emissions.

So, how might Cook’s Apple already be making use of AI to help manage its own emissions?

As I don’t keep any surveillance equipment in or near the CEO’s office, I can only speculate, but there are two clear ways in which AI could easily contribute to Apple’s Environmental CSR:

Reporting: AI can deliver far more accurate reporting from across complex supply chains than human workers can. Not only can it measure and track goods in transit, but it can estimate the environmental costs of manufacture, distribution, and final use.

The more accurate such estimates become, the easier it becomes to identify key areas in which changes can deliver difference. This is particularly important to manufacturers attempting to assess more complex “Scopes.”

Recycling: Tech can help manage tech. Used in waste management and recycling, AI can mitigate contamination and optimize the recycling process. This is one of the ways Apple is making use of AI to boost sustainability.

AI is fundamental to Apple’s recycling plans

“We would not be able to recover the level of material that we do today for recycling without AI,” Cook said, speaking at the China Development Forum. “I mean, it’s already fundamental in our calculation.”

He believes AI provides a set of tools that should help any company on a mission to become carbon neutral or to make significant sustainability improvements.

We don’t quite know how Apple uses AI in recycling, but I’m willing to take an educated guess that at least one component consists of machine vision intelligence-driven systems on waste-sorting lines.

We already know machines do a better/faster job than humans can or want to do on such challenges, and the health and safety concerns of handling recycled materials, particularly harmful materials, are reduced by getting machines to do the work. Not only this, but smart recycling systems can also provide real-time waste analytics.

Apple has a family of recycling robots already diligently tearing old iPhones apart. Its Daisy robots each process up to 1.2 million of these each year.

The big problem with automated recycling systems is training, but Apple’s recent investment in Darwin AI, in tandem with the features of visionOS, hint at future innovations in machine intelligence learning models.

What a difference an AI makes

While I remain sceptical that AI alone can tackle the challenges of carbon reduction and sustainability, Cook is correct that AI has a part to play.

A Microsoft-sponsored PwC report estimated that applied AI could reduce worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 4% in 2030, equivalent to the annual emissions of Australia, Canada, and Japan combined. This matters, given that the World Bank predicts global waste will increase by 70% by 2050.

“Put simply, AI can enable our future systems to be more productive for the economy and for nature,” said Celine Herweijer, Global Innovation and Sustainability Leader, PwC.

Further out, of course, one day your Mac will tell you when it needs repair before it actually breaks down. Indeed, in terms of Apple services, it’s reasonable to imagine that if you have Apple Care or Apple Business Manager, it may even book itself in for maintenance.

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