As of 2018, there are around 2.5 billion smartphone users in the world. If we broke open all their newest phones, which are just a fraction of the total that’ve been built, and split them into their component parts, that would produce around 85,000 kilograms of gold, 875,000 of silver, and 40 million kilograms of copper. How did this precious cache get into our phones, and can we reclaim it?
Gold, silver, and copper are actually just a few of the 70 or so chemical elements that make up the average smartphone. These can be divided into different groups, two of the most critical being rare earth elements and precious metals.
Rare earths are a selection of 17 elements that are actually common in Earth’s crust and are found in many areas across the world in low concentrations. These elements have a huge range of magnetic, phosphorescent, and conductive properties that make them crucial to modern technologies. In fact, of the 17 types of rare-earth metals, phones, and other electronics may contain up to 16. In smartphones, these create the screen and color display, aid conductivity, and produce signature vibrations, amongst other things.
And yet, crucial as they are, extracting these elements from the earth is linked to some disturbing environmental impacts. Rare earth elements can often be found, but in many areas, it’s not economically feasible to extract them due to low concentrations. Much of the time, extracting them requires a method called open-pit mining that exposes vast areas of land. This form of mining destroys huge swaths of natural habitats and causes air and water pollution, threatening the health of nearby communities.
Another group of ingredients in smartphones comes with similar environmental risks: these are metals such as copper, silver, palladium, aluminum, platinum, tungsten, tin, lead, and gold. We also mine magnesium, lithium, silica, and potassium to make phones, and all of it is associated with vast habitat destruction, as well as air and water pollution. Mining comes with worrying social problems, too, like large-scale human and animal displacement to make way for industrial operations, and frequently, poor working conditions for laborers.
Lastly, phone production also requires petroleum, one of the main drivers of climate change. That entwines our smartphones inextricably with this growing planetary conundrum.
And, what’s more, the ingredients we mine to make our phones aren’t infinite. One day, they’ll simply run out, and we haven’t yet discovered effective replacements for some. Despite this, the number of smartphones is on a steady increase; by 2019 it’s predicted that there’ll be close to 3 billion in use.
This means that reclaiming the bounty within our phones is swiftly becoming a necessity. So, if you have an old phone, you might want to consider your options before throwing it away. To minimize waste, you could donate it to a charity for reuse, take it to an e-waste recycling facility, or look for a company that refurbishes old models.
However, even recycling companies need our scrutiny. Just as the production of smartphones comes with social and environmental problems, dismantling them does too. E-waste is sometimes intentionally exported to countries where labor is cheap but working conditions are poor. Vast workforces, often made up of women and children, maybe underpaid, lack the training to safely disassemble phones, and be exposed to elements like lead and mercury, which can permanently damage their nervous systems. Phone waste can also end up in huge dumpsites, leaching toxic chemicals into the soil and water, mirroring the problems of the mines where the elements originated.
A phone is much more than it appears to be on the surface. It’s an assemblage of elements from multiple countries, linked to impacts that are unfolding on a global scale. So, until someone invents a completely sustainable smartphone, we’ll need to come to terms with how this technology affects widespread places and people.
Disclaimer - This is a Ted Talk Transcript