Are Smartphones Sustainable?

Smartphones Sustainable

Despite being unheard of just a few years ago, the smartphone has grown rapidly to become a major part of our lives. In a survey conducted by Time Magazine, as many as 84% of Americans said they would not be able to survive a day without one. What’s more, it is estimated that around 1billion new smartphones are sold every year around the world.

In the relatively short space of time since the first iPhone was launched in 2007, our smartphones have become an integral part of everyday life. We use them for everything from managing our bank to checking the baseball odds, playing Candy Crush to chatting on social media, so it's no surprise that we’ve become personally and emotionally attached to our gadgets. It’s hard to imagine a life without our phones, but if we don’t start to rethink how we recycle our used devices and reduce the number we get through in the first place, then that could become a reality, and a lot sooner than you may think.


(Caption: 10million smartphones are discarded in Europe every month)

Precious metals in your smartphone

It might not seem like much, but the phone in your hand is a virtual periodic table of elements. At least 70 of the 83 stable, non-radioactive, elements are present in smartphones, including 16 of the 17 so-called rare Earth metals. Around 40% of your phone is made up of metals, with the typical iPhone containing 0.034g of gold, 0.34g of silver, 15g of copper and 25g of aluminum.

Those numbers might not sound very large, but when you consider that around 10million smartphones are discarded in Europe alone every month, it soon adds up. That means that each month 340kg of gold, 3,400kgof silver, and 16tonnes of copper are thrown away in Europe. And it’s not just precious metals that are being thrown away.

Rare Earth Elements in your phone

Some of the metals in your smartphone are very rare indeed, and without them, we could not enjoy many of the features we take for granted. For example, without neodymium and dysprosium, you could not have the vibrate feature when your phone is on silent. Similarly, without indium, we could not have touch screens, and without yttrium, terbium, and dysprosium, we would not enjoy the rich colors that we see on our games and videos.

The problem is that many of these elements are notoriously difficult to mine and their extraction creates significant environmental consequences. What’s more, many of them are mined in less than ideal conditions, and their production creates funds for less than ideal causes. The more of these elements we use in our technology, the more these problems will grow, while at the same time, supplies are constantly dwindling.

Limited supplies and no alternatives

Experts have estimated that reserves of many of the elements in our smartphones are limited, with some only expected to last for a few years. For example, one study estimates that supplies of dysprosium, needed for so many features as discussed above, are estimated to run out sometime between 2020 and 2050. Even copper, an essential element of all our electronics, could be in short supply by mid-decade.

Unfortunately, there are few alternatives to these elements. One study, by Yale University, found that there was not a single replacement for the elements in a smartphone that was deemed to be just as good as the original, and at least a dozen of the elements used had no direct replacement at all. Perhaps more importantly, many of these elements are not only used in smartphones, but also vital for medical technology, such as pace-makers, green technology, such as solar panels, and many other essential applications.

Recycling to reclaim the elements

Despite national and international initiatives to encourage manufacturers to take more responsibility for the lifetime of the devices they make, far too few of our old phones are recycled to reclaim their precious contents. Some estimates claim that as few as 10% of our smartphones are recycled. A study by the Royal Society of Chemistry estimated that there were around 40million used gadgets in UK homes alone, stuffed in cupboards and drawers and not recycled. This is despite the fact that a tonne of smartphones yields 300 times as much gold as a tonne of gold ore, and a kilo of ore is needed to produce just a few milligrams of elements like indium.


(Caption: There is 300x more gold in a tonne of old mobiles than a tonne of gold ore)

Why don’t we recycle our phones?

For many people, the idea of recycling their phone simply doesn’t occur to them. They are focussed on their new gadget and the old one ceases to be of any interest. On the other hand, some people are just too attached to their old phones to let go. The smartphone that was so important to them the day before their upgrade is just too hard to say goodbye to and many people keep their old device just in case they don’t take to the new version. For others, recycling their phone, with all its personal information, raises questions of data privacy and identity theft. This can be avoided by performing a factory reset and recycling through a reputable dealer, but many people are still concerned.

Of course, recycling is not always the clean and simple answer that it might seem to be. Many of the methods used in the recycling process are harmful to the environment, and many of these processes take place in largely de-regulated countries. This, in turn, exposes workers to toxic environments containing lead, mercury, chromium, and even arsenic.

Keep your phone for longer

Unfortunately for the gadget-loving community, who love nothing more than upgrading to the latest smartphone, the most viable solution to the sustainability issue may be to keep hold of our current phones for longer. With reserves of the vital elements running out and recycling a limited option from an environmental perspective, simply getting more out of the phones we already own seems to be the best way forward. After all, we’re all mostly happy with our current phones until the new model comes out and tempts us with new features. And is a slightly bigger or brighter screen really worth depleting the planet for?  

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