When we unbox a new phone it’s an awe-inspiring thing. The newest technology put together in a tiny package is a testament to humankind’s ingenuity. The last thing that is going through your head is how the thing was put together, where the materials come from and how long it will be before it’s put in a drawer when it’s become obsolete. We all know phone brands and what their features are, but where all the raw materials come from are definitely an afterthought. In this blog, we’re going to look at the environmental impact of your phone and the materials used to make it.
Materials Used in a Smartphone
Smartphones are made up of hundreds of components and all of these have to be produced from raw materials. This chart breaks down the most commonly used materials.
This shows that silicon, used in microchips, is one of the most used elements in Smartphone manufacturer. Silicon is the second most abundant element on earth, so there is an abundance of it. Other elements used as you go further down the list are not so readily available. Plastics are made from either virgin oil or recycled plastics. It is estimated that smartphones are generally made using virgin oil to produce their plastics. Some manufacturers claim things like “30% of xxxxx parts” made from recycled materials. Though this is some help towards the consumption of raw materials for manufacturing, it still doesn’t stop new materials being used. Below the plastics on the list are types of metals, according to this chart.
Though we see metals in every day life there is a disconnect with the shiny, refined materials we are used to seeing compared to the process of taking them out of the ground. Metal mining causes all kinds of environmental problems. These include erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals used in mining processes.
There are on average 63 types of metals that are used in Smartphones. These all need to be mined. There are 17 rare earth metals and 16 of them, are used in Smartphones. These metals are scattered around small pockets around the globe and many are in areas with conflict. Metals mined in these areas are called conflict minerals and profits from them are used to fund local militias and use children as forced workers.
The demand for metals will continue however with the average American baby born today expected to consume 244 kg of zinc, 409 kg of lead and 446 kg of copper in their lifetime.
Currently, only 15% of smartphones globally are recycled. 70% of toxic waste in landfills is estimated to come from old technology products. This has to change, and more phones need to be recycled for the tech industry to become more sustainable. After all, we only have a finite amount of resources on earth. The trace amounts of rare-earth metals used in Smartphones is hugely valuable. By the time they make their way into your product they are refined and according to the EU 30-40 smartphones contain 1g of gold. This is equivalent to a tonne of mined gold ore.
It’s really down to the manufacturers to use more recycled materials, but while the demand is there for 1.5 billion new smartphones a year they will keep producing until it’s not profitable. You can do your bit by recycling old technology products, but there has to be a bigger shift in tech manufacturers and consumers thinking to come to terms with the severity of this resource-draining industry.