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How to Reduce the Eco Impacts of Cell Phones

Photo from Re:Mobile New Zealand

The inside of a typical current cell smartphone.

By Alfred Robert Hogan

Cell telephones have become commonplace in the Global North, with for example perhaps 75 percent of people in the USA owing at least one, typically now advanced smartphones. Globally, as many as 5 billion people now own a cell phone. Even the futuristic STAR TREK Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk, Science Officer Mr. Spock, and their starship colleagues, who were to use handheld flip-style “communicators” in the late 2360s, would be decidedly impressed by the sophisticated Internet access, high-speed data, quality video, and detailed screens of smartphones in the 2020s.

However, the invaluable and ingenious devices have also generated all sorts of new environmental and climate challenges, from mining the needed raw materials for manufacturing them to gobbling up energy when they operate to disposing of them as “E-waste” when they are no longer wanted. And other electronic devices, such as laptop computers, plus electric cars, pose some similar problems.

Mining for the diverse materials needed for cell phones, as well as drilling for the crude oil plastic used for their casings, rely on causing considerable extractive damage to the planet. In addition, there are some systemic child labor and even slave labor issues, notably with cobalt mining in Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo (specifically, in Lualaba Province, in Southern region of the DRC), the source of 70 percent of the world’s cobalt. All but 2 percent of cobalt is obtained as a byproduct of copper mining or nickel mining. About one-third or so of cobalt comes from artisanal and small-scale mining, an industry rife with young boys forced to be miners instead of being students in school.

Coltran is a dull black metallic ore processed into niobium and tantalum, with the latter mineral found in cell phone batteries and their tantalum capacitors (which store electric charges). Coltran mining is also concentrated in the DRC.

Photo from Christopher Willis via Twitter posted in 2015

Rare earth mining in China created this toxic-tailings lake.

Rare earth elements (known as the 17 “technology metals”) commonly used in cell phones and other electronics are mined mostly in China, Russia, and Australia. The mining process produces lots of toxic tailings, often dumped into artificial lakes where they can leach into groundwater.

When companies manufacture cell phones, the toxic ingredients involved include harmful chemicals such as mercury, lead, chlorine, and arsenic. If those chemicals later enter our soil, they can both foul drinking water and also the food supply by tainting the soil used to grow fruits and vegetables.

In fact, overall, smartphones surprisingly contain more than 20 different materials, including crude-oil-plastic, gold, silver, palladium, and platinum. Most are only present in tiny amounts (there are merely about 0.034 gram of gold and 0.34 gram of silver in a typical Apple iPhone). But cumulatively, the effects add up. Gold mining, for example in the Peruvian Andes and in Indonesia, produces wastes rich in toxic cyanide and mercury, which can contaminate local drinking water. Iron ore mining in Brazil has contributed to Amazon deforestation (as does cattle ranching). In the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais in November 2015, a massive spill from the Brazilian-Australian firm Samarco’s iron mine tailings pond when the dam burst would have filled 23,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The eco-disaster’s toxic brown mudflow killed 19 people, wiped out two downstream villages, and fouled 668 kilometers of waterways. In January 2019, the Brazilian Vale company’s gold tailings dam burst, killing 270 people. Dozens of such gold mine tailings spills have occurred in the past decade.

Among the list of additional environmental problems from cell phone components:

  • Printed circuit boards contain toxic metals, such as lead, nickel, and beryllium.

  • Liquid crystal displays contain mercury.

  • Batteries may contain nickel and cadmium, especially older ones.

  • Plastics sometimes contain brominated flame retardants, which are persistent toxics that can accumulate in household dust and bioaccumulate in the food chain.

Inside each typical cell phone there are (among myriad other “ingredients”):

Material in Cell Phones (with percentage of typical cell phone): Use in Cell Phones

Aluminum (14%): In mobile phone cases and components including batteries, glass, and as an alternative to stainless steel

Bauxite: Processed into aluminum for the phone’s casing

Bismuth: Surface finish

Cobalt: Rechargeable batteries

Copper (7%): Electrical wiring and electrical conductor in the mobile-phone circuit boards

Crude Oil: Hard plastic for the outside casing and for the circuit boards

Gold: To conduct electricity in and serve as plating for circuit boards

Iron (20%): Speakers, microphones, and stainless-steel frames

Lead (6%): Solder to join the parts of our phones together

Palladium: Electrical connections on the circuit boards

Tungsten: To make phone vibrate

Fiberglass: To make the circuit boards

Lithium: In mobile phone batteries to let them be charged over and over again

Nickel: Electrical connections, capacitors, and batteries

Platinum: For electrical connections on the circuit board

Silicon (25%): For semiconductors