Smartphones – The new Open Sesame

A disturbing fact that has been revealed by the WEEE Forum report is how consumerism and status consciousness can create a waste playground that can be considered galactic in size. It has been estimated that an excess of five billion mobile phones possessed worldwide will most likely be thrown away or kept aside as redundant. If laid one after the other in a straight line, the length would be nearly 50,000 km. This is pretty huge if one considers that the circumference of the earth is a little over 40,000 km. These numbers are staggering as the number of mobile phone users including smartphones and tablets will keep growing exponentially year after year.

The WEEE Forum is a not-for-profit association that represents forty-six producer responsibility organizations that claim smartphones are one of the electronic gadgets that are a great source of concern for the planet. The report also revealed that nearly eight pounds of electronic devices or gadgets are currently hoarded per individual across any average European family.

A lot of people tend not to realize that all these seemingly insignificant items have immense value. The average smartphone is a treasure trove of huge proportions from a value perspective. They consist of large amounts of valuable metals such as gold, silver, palladium, copper, and many more recyclable components. Nearly all such unwanted and discarded gadgets will be dumped or incinerated creating considerable health hazards and environmental damage.

The surging global appetite for electronics and smartphones has created a considerable rise in demand for multiple crucial metals. As a result, the conventional techniques of mining minerals and metals from the Earth are becoming progressively unsustainable from an environmental standpoint. 

To be fully functional and aesthetically appealing, a smartphone requires a surprisingly vast amount of minerals and metals. The extent of minerals covers both regular and some rare and precious metals. Some metals are copper which is used for wiring, and silver which is needed for the buttons and screens. Gold is required for the electronic switches. It is said that nearly 7% of all the gold in the world might be found in old, discarded, and unused gadgets. Many of the metals might not be household names but are critical for a functionality aspect. These include metals like tungsten and dysprosium that are needed to make the phones vibrate. Others like terbium and yttrium are used in the manufacture of screens while cerium and lanthanum are used for polishing glass screens. Most of the electronic gadgets and devices that we junk into landfills including mobile phones are a treasure trove of multiple valuable metals.  

Traditional mining of several such metals is pretty complicated. Tungsten, tin, and tantalum are known as conflict metals. The Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa is one of the major producers of these metals, where the gains from such activities have been diverted to finance wars. In fact, the DR of Congo is the world’s largest producer of cobalt which is needed in the manufacture of batteries and electronic gadgets including phones and laptops. Other metals used in the manufacture of mobile phones are rare earth elements. They are available in very low concentrations on the Earth and this makes them complex and expensive to mine. China has a monopolistic supply of rare earth elements today. The geopolitical flux that can happen across the global political spectrum has the ability to disrupt global supply chains and affect the manufacturing and supply of gadgets.

Urban mining offers a fabulous opportunity of recycling discarded gadgets as a fresh alternative source of metals. Using cutting-edge technologies, urban mining companies can source old or discarded phones and gadgets and channel them for the recycling of metals. This could be a more reliable and ethical source to restore the supply chain without creating environmental damage. This also helps lower the demand for conflict metals. Many other metals and rare earth elements can be tapped for urban mining.

To accomplish these tasks, there is a constant need for developing recycling technologies that work well from the quality of output as well as from an extraction cost perspective.    

Technologies for recycling gold are also improving. While industrial smelters are most commonly used, new techniques like using mild acids are being developed that consume a lot less energy. Techniques and other innovative solutions will make the urban mining industry a lot more effective and impactful.

An important point to consider is the design of the smartphone design. This can affect the ease of recycling components and metals. Typical smartphones are a tad difficult to dismantle and take apart at the end of the life cycle. A solution going forward could be for regulatory bodies and manufacturers to alter the existing make-and-dispose model into circular processes. This helps prioritize reusing, repairing, and recycling existing products or the 3 R’s model.

Some exciting trivia. One gram of gold can be extracted from 41 mobile phones while a ton of smartphones could result in 340g of gold. One can safely estimate that a single ton of iPhones can yield possibly 300 times more gold than a ton of gold ore.

That is the power of urban mining. It can help to save the planet’s resources. So, the next time one thinks of upgrading the smartphone, keep in mind the hidden treasures lurking inside. It is “open sesame.”  

The author…….

Follow us on: