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
Silver: In the circuit boards
Zinc: In the circuit boards
Sources: Re:Mobile New Zealand, The Conversation, Statista.com, and Fossbytes
Some recycled cell phones have been put to unusual uses. For example, the gold, silver, and bronze medals given to top athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (pandemic-delayed till summer 2021) were made in part from recycled cell phones and other E-waste. Some 47,488 metric tons of unwanted electronic devices were collected, which produced 30.3 KG of gold, 4100 KG of silver, and 2700 KG of bronze medals!
Energy use directly by cell phones themselves is only a small portion of their energy impact. The popularity of 4G since its introduction in 2009 (as the 4th broadband wireless generation)—and the even superior 5G, which began debuting in 2019—has prompted a race for the fastest speeds, with little attention to the larger-scale energy and environmental impacts of mobile devices. Consumers rarely if ever see the vast data centers, switches, and network cables through which their calls and data travel—nor give much thought to the huge amounts of energy entailed. In recent years, some cell phone providers in certain countries have indicated they will upgrade to using much cleaner solar energy, but that change from dirty energy sources is still a work in progress. Cell phones, laptops, and other such electronics have gone from accounting for about 1 percent of world electricity in 2007 to 3 percent by 2018—with some estimates that number will rise to 14 percent by 2040.
Most unfortunately, some clueless “trendy” people feel compelled to buy fancy new cell phones any time the latest model debuts, even if their existing cell phones still work just fine. Of course, do not do that. Take good care of your cell phone and make it last. The average cell phone lasts only two years—extending that to three years can make a significant difference. Buying a new cell phone can use as much in energy as an older smartphone would use in one decade. And a study published back in June 2015 in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment found that Apple iPhone 6s smartphones created 57 percent more CO2 than earlier-model Apple iPhone 4s. And despite recycling programs, perhaps less than 1 percent of smartphones are being recycled, research has estimated..
When you do need to buy a new cell phone, check and see if your service provider has a cell phones recycling bin for your old one. If not, take your old cell phone to an appropriate recycling center. However, keep in mind, in the developing countries where “cells” are often repurposed or dismantled, some of the components can still poison rivers and soil, contributing to cancers, nervous system damage, and impaired brain development in children. In one science study published in 2020, 34 cellphones had been put through a standard US EPA test to simulate landfill conditions. All leached hazardous amounts of lead—on average, more than 17 times higher than the US federal lead threshold. Recycling cell phones will cut the demand for raw materials such as coltan, and further reduce destruction of imperiled gorilla habitats in the DRC caused by loosely regulated mining operations
We can benefit from the advanced communication marvels of cell phones. But we should still remain mindful of keeping their environmental and climate impacts toward the minimum feasible levels.
Industry perspective on cobalt, Cobalt Institute, no date: https://www.cobaltinstitute.org/cobalt-mining-in-the-democratic-republic-of-congo/#
Amnesty International on child labor in cobalt mining, no date https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/06/drc-cobalt-child-labour/
Patrick Byrne and Karen Hudson-Edwards, “Three Ways Making A Smartphone can Harm the Environment,” The Conversation, Tuesday 28 August 2018 https://theconversation.com/three-ways-making-a-smartphone-can-harm-the-environment-102148
Fossbytes Staff, “What’s Inside My Smartphone? — An In-Depth Look At Different Components Of A Smartphone,” Fossbytes, Saturday 24 June 2017 https://fossbytes.com/whats-inside-smartphone-depth-look-parts-powering-everyday-gadget/
Owen Williams, “The secret energy impact of your phone,” Increment/Energy & Environment, February 2018 https://increment.com/energy-environment/the-secret-energy-impact-of-your-phone/
Mauricio Angelo, “Specter of tailings disaster looms after spill at Canadian firm’s Brazil mine,” Mongabay, Thursday 27 May 2021 https://news.mongabay.com/2021/05/specter-of-tailings-disaster-looms-after-spill-at-canadian-firms-brazil-mine/
“The Top 10 Metals and Minerals Powering Your Mobile Phone,” MEC Mining, Wednesday 7 March 2018 https://www.mecmining.com.au/the-top-10-metals-and-minerals-powering-your-mobile-phone/
“From minerals to your mobile,” National Museums Scotland, no date https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/resources/from-minerals-to-your-mobile/
Mark Wilson, “Smartphones Are Killing The Planet Faster Than Anyone Expected,” Fast Company, Tuesday 27 March 2018https://www.fastcompany.com/90165365/smartphones-are-wrecking-the-planet-faster-than-anyone-expected
Infographics: Environmental impacts of cell telephones https://visual.ly/community/Infographics/environment/environmental-impact-cell-phones
Treehuggers: Pros and cons on cell phones environmental impacts www.treehugger.com/the-environmental-costs-and-benefits-of-our-cell-phones-4858551#:~:text=Cell%20phones%20pose%20a%20serious%20burden%20on%20the,nervous%20system%20and%20to%20brain%20development%20in%20children