When a user throws away their phone, they don’t even know what the device is. In fact, under the glossy display lies a whole “collection” of materials. The smartphone uses about 30 metals, including copper, iron, aluminum, as well as a small amount of silver and gold.

Particularly important are the so-called rare earth elements – we are talking about a group of 17 metals such as lanthanum, neodymium or tantalum. Without this “trinity” in smartphones there would be no vibrating signal, no touch screen, no colorful multitude of colors on the display. In small quantities, rare earth metals are also used in light sources, microphones and speakers.

What is a smartphone made of?
What is a smartphone made of?

According to the European Federal Office for Geosciences and Resources, the need for dysprosium and terbium for the production of permanent magnets for electric vehicles and wind farms by 2035 may increase by 313% compared to 2013. Already, given the growing need for these materials, some are calling them the “oil of the future.”

Will Gadget Resources Ever Run Out?

It is worth noting that these elements are actually not so rare. They are evenly distributed throughout the Earth, but their extraction in most cases is associated with significant difficulties. Rare earth elements are contained in approximately 200 different minerals and can only be extracted at very high cost. Therefore, most rare earth metals are included in the list of important raw materials. The 27 substances mentioned in it “are of great economic importance”, but “they do not have free and fair access.”

Mining of rare earth materials
Mining of rare earth materials

So will rare earths ever run out in the future? This can hardly be expected, given that the reserves are distributed over the territories of various countries. A much bigger problem is China’s current quasi-monopoly on mining. When the world’s largest rare-metal miner announced export quotas in 2010, prices soared to astronomical heights and briefly hovered in 2011 at 12 times their 2009 prices.

While China is the world market leader in rare earths, most of the cobalt or coltan is mined in the Congo. Tantalum is extracted from coltan, which is necessary for the production of mobile phones. As with blood diamonds, which are illicitly mined and used to fund military conflicts, the origin of many mobile phone materials is also questionable.

Bayan-Obo mine (China) - rare earth elements are mined here
Bayan-Obo mine (China) – rare earth elements are mined here

The Congo, for example, is a clear illustration that the importance of minerals is so great that it leads to wars: for a long time, mining companies financed a terrible civil war. Because coltan is relatively easy to mine, military dictators seized numerous mines to sell the ore for high profits.

Ethical Standards – Unethical Consequences

In the US, electronics manufacturers have come under severe pressure since Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, which banned the use of so-called “conflict raw materials” from conflict areas in Africa in production. In June 2017, the European Council adopted a similar directive requiring manufacturers to pay attention to the potentially cleaner origin of materials and publish procurement documents.

Unfortunately, these good intentions backfired: all the stringent environmental regulations increased the unprofitability of production in the West. Meanwhile, in North America and Europe, there are no rare earth processing companies that can be mentioned as those that are correctly operating. In this situation, China again receives the greatest benefit, where most of the minerals are processed.

The path of rare earth elements on the example of cobalt: 1 - export of cobalt from small Congolese mines to China;  2 - supply of processed cobalt to Asian battery manufacturers;  3 - supply of batteries to electronics and car manufacturers
The path of rare earth elements on the example of cobalt: 1 – export of cobalt from small Congolese mines to China; 2 – supply of processed cobalt to Asian battery manufacturers; 3 – supply of batteries to electronics and car manufacturers

However, it is difficult for manufacturers of electronic devices to control information from local suppliers regarding the origin of ore. Despite this, electronics giants such as Apple, HP, Huawei, Samsung and Sony joined the Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI) in 2016 to improve working conditions in cobalt mining. Apple has also suspended purchases of cobalt from particularly dubious mines.

Dangerous image of environmental pollutants

Some observers believe that technological advances are driving up demand, with the result that smartphones and other electronic devices may be “responsible” for climate change. According to a study by experts from the Canadian McMaster University, the share of information and communication technologies in global CO2 emissions2 will increase from 1% in 2007 to 3.5% in 2020 and up to 14% in 2040.

According to Professor Lotfi Belkir, head of the research team, “this will be half the emissions of the entire transport industry.” The reason for this is not the operation of devices, but their production and, first of all, the extraction of raw materials, associated with huge energy costs. In most cases, the process is carried out with the use of chemicals that are harmful to health.

According to Greenpeace, from 2007 to 2017, 968 TWh was spent on smartphone production globally, which is the same as India’s annual electricity consumption.

No one would want to get the reputation of being the “top polluter” in the market. Therefore, electronics manufacturers are eager to take appropriate measures. So, in early April 2018, Apple announced that all its offices, data centers, stores and factories around the world are completely switching to renewable energy sources. Nevertheless, many suppliers use not very transparent economic balance schemes, not to mention the extraction of the necessary raw materials.

Old gadgets are “warehouses” of minerals

The situation is not improving due to the frequent replacement by users of mobile phones, which have an average lifespan of two years. For example, in Europe, only in Germany, according to the Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (Bitkom), about 125 million unused old devices are stored in cabinets and drawers.

According to a study by the Institute for Environmental Problems, one smartphone contains, on average, about 300 mg of silver and 30 mg of gold, and about 6 g of cobalt in a battery. One ton of smartphones contains 250 g of gold. For comparison: in most cases, a ton of gold ore contains no more than 4 g of the precious metal.

During the recycling of old gadgets, metals such as copper, silver, palladium and gold are almost completely recovered for reuse. The amount of rare earth elements in old devices, on the contrary, is very small, so their extraction by mine or open pit is still more profitable. With about 1.3 billion iPhones sold by Apple to date, we are talking about many thousands of tons of cobalt.

Smartphones: quickly bought – quickly broke

The fact that mobile phones are replaced on average after two years is not least due to the short service life of individual components. “First the battery fails, then the display,” says Manfred Zanten, an expert at Greenpeace. In addition, manufacturers could release new device models to the market at ever shorter intervals. Not surprisingly, in this case, the quality of the devices also suffers greatly.

A broken display is the most common reason for buying a new smartphone.
A broken display is the most common reason for buying a new smartphone.

Every year, mobile phones and tablets are getting worse and worse to repair. Thinner devices are increasingly using glue instead of screws. If the battery has exhausted its resource and began to discharge quickly, it will not be possible to replace it yourself. To do this, you will have to contact the service center.

Smartphone batteries contain a lot of rare earth elements.
Smartphone batteries contain a lot of rare earth elements.

According to Manfred Zanten, the solution may lie in the suspension and slowdown of the production process. This means putting on the market not a large number of models, but those that can be repaired. But such an approach is unlikely to work unless there is control at the legislative level. There are more and more players in the smartphone market, and no one will voluntarily give up participating in the ongoing race for leadership. And while fixing a broken smartphone is not much cheaper than just buying a new device without any hassle, there is no need to wait for global changes.

And how many smartphones gather dust in your desk drawer? Write in the comments!

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Photo: pxhere.com