12/07/2021

How Much Plastic Is In Your Phone?

It’s Plastic Free July and whilst we are mostly all against single use plastics, it brought us on to thinking, is there space in the smartphone world for plastic? Let’s explore.

History of Plastic in Phones

Over the years, smartphones gained features like wireless charging and Power Share which meant manufacturers had to move to more signal transmitting materials like glass creating a fragile piece of hardware. Packaged with all these smart features and sandwiched between glass parts, smartphones quickly became a premium gadget.

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Phones built with plastic have slowly become less prevalent in the flagship range as manufacturers aim for more premium finish. The Samsung Galaxy S5 had a pimpled plastic back and was slammed by review sites, so much so their head of design resigned in shame. What followed was the extremely glassy Galaxy S6 Edge, which paved the way for the modern glass smartphone.

Why is Plastic Used in Phones?

Similarly to any other industry, smartphone manufacturers have been always seeking alternatives to materials to reduce costs of production. Within plastics the most widespread build material for smartphones is polycarbonate and it offers a great way for original equipment manufacturers to cut down on expenses. Various types of plastics can be blended together to create inner components, and for external housing parts plastics can have protective coatings applied to achieve different look and feel.

Are Phones Made of Plastic Good or Bad?

We’ve broken down the positives and negatives things about plastic housing in phones.

Pros

Recyclability

Polycarbonate is fully recyclable and reusable at the end of life which makes it a sustainable choice of material. The recycling process of polycarbonate includes the material to be sorted, shredded, washed and turned into granules ready to be reused.

Manufacturing costs

Depending on how expensive it will turn out for the manufacturer to build a smartphone, that cost will translate into the price the end user will pay. The less complicated the build material is, the easier it is for designers to work with it and to manufacture parts which helps to keep the costs down.

Durability

Plastic isn’t unbreakable, but in comparison to glass, it can be abused a lot more before it breaks. If you drop a glass phone on a hard surface, the chance of it shattering is very high, however a phone with a plastic finish will do just fine.

Design freedom

Plastic can be moulded into different shapes and painted in various colours giving designers freedom to realise their most unimaginable concepts. We’ve seen the vibrant finishes phones made of plastic can have, remember old Nokia phones? Moreover smartphones with plastic backs are lighter and more comfortable to hold in hand.

Signal transmission

It is important to factor in signal transmission when building a phone, and plastic as a build material still allows radio waves transmission without causing reception issues unlike some metals.

Cons

Cheap feel

We all have a stereotype of plastic items being and feeling cheap which they can, but it’s not always the case. The Galaxy S III was an example of bad plastics used as a finish material, but it was almost 10 years ago. Today smartphones with plastic back panels have totally transformed, the Galaxy S20 FE or OnePlus Nord for instance. However they won’t deliver as premium feel as phones made of glass will.

Not as strong

We’ve seen in many JerryRigEverything video that if the phone has plastic in its frame, then it is liable to fail the bend test.

Not biodegradable

Similarly to other plastic items, smartphones including all their internal components and parts do not naturally biodegrade and if they get to landfill, they will stay there for decades polluting the environment compared to metal bodies, that will rust and decay.

Prone to wear and tear

Plastic isn’t as scratch resistant as glass for example, so from this point of view plastic finishes can be a let down if you’re not being careful, but who doesn’t put a case on it from day one?

As you can see the pros appear to outweigh the cons significantly. It’s in the application that matters the most, for example, used in the middle of the frame, it can seriously impact the structural integrity of the phone, but when used in back panel parts it provides low cost, damage resistant protection to the internals.

If the device is responsibly recycled then the plastic in the device itself will be reused.

Virgin Plastic in Phones

Virgin plastic is the term for plastics that have been newly created, we have systems in place to recycle plastic but still many companies are choosing to use new plastic for their back cases and internal components.

The Google Pixel 4a only uses 47% of recycled plastic in the device so that’s still a considerable amount of virgin plastic being used per device.

Apple are surprisingly vague about their plastic usage, despite saying they are transitioning to recycled sources. They are using 35% or more in 14 components, difficult to scrutinise. How many plastic components do they have? Which components are only using 35% recycled plastics? We suspect the total amount of recycled plastics to be much lower.

Recycling Devices Still so Important

Adding one more device requires mining and fresh resources to be used, wherever possible these companies should be using recycled material to the absolute maximum possible and then only using virgin materials when there is no other option.

To recycle your phone, use Compare and Recycle. Easily find a great price for your old device, and keep it in the loop for longer.

Andrew Marchant

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