Compare and Recycle
22/06/2023

This Is Why Mobile Phone Recycling Matters

two planets next to each other, one in climate crises, the other one thriving

Our all-in-one handheld computers come with ramifications we don't see. Let's say an average person gets their first phone at the age of 10. Our latest statistics suggest that phones are replaced roughly every 3.6 years and the average human life expectancy in the UK is 81 years. This means that each of us will own around 20 phones in their lifetime. Someone can have a few more or a few less, but the fact remains - we upgrade phones far too frequently which leads to the depletion of the Earth's resources for the sake of owning newer and faster devices with slightly better cameras.

In This Article:

The Bigger Picture

According to the WEEE Forum, 5.3 billion phones were thrown away in 2022 alone - this amounts to 169 phones dumped each and every second last year. That's heaps of phones! To make matters worse, it has been estimated that a shocking 74.7 million metric tons of e-waste will be generated by the year 2030.

The use of mobile phones is predicted to skyrocket over the next few years – from 14 billion in 2020 to an impressive 18.2 billion by 2025, roughly a billion extra smartphones manufactured every year to satisfy our desire for the latest and greatest smartphone. A single smartphone is made of 62 different metals and metalloids, which almost the entire periodic table. To source these metals for one mobile phone scientists at Plymouth University discovered that 10-15 kg of ore needs to be mined, including 7kg of high-grade gold ore, 1kg of typical copper ore, 750g of typical tungsten ore and 200g of typical nickel ore.

“This means that concentration-wise, a phone has 100 times more gold – or 10 times more tungsten – than a mineral resource geologists would call ‘high-grade’.”

But that’s not all, the technology sector consumes 308.5 tonnes of gold. If we put things in perspective, this is as much as what 102 African elephants weigh. To supply enough raw materials for the amount of phones yearly produced, tech corporations are mining tonnes of ores contributing to the destruction of an area of the Amazon rainforest equal to a football pitch every minute.

Phones simply cannot be made without valuable minerals - a myriad of them is required to power a phone. This includes silicon, carbon, calcium, coltan, iron, gold, copper, nickel, tin and aluminium. During extraction and refinement of materials, the amount of waste created is 200 times more than the weight of the phone itself. One 226g phone needs 74kg of raw materials, and the production of one microchip requires 36 litres of water.

The Environmental Cost

Mining has an enduring and devastating impact on the environment. Natural habitat destruction and the contamination of water and soil puts workers' and members of local communities' lives in danger. Ore grade is decreasing, which has led to mines becoming wider and deeper, labour cost increasing, working conditions lacking safety and the cost per kg of minerals going up, all of which creates huge price tags for our phones.

Relevant reading:

It's important to reduce what you consume and recycle what's left. When it comes to mobile phones, keeping valuable and rare metals in circulation is an excellent way to reduce resource depletion.

Apple developed a way to recycle its products and introduced a new generation of robots called Daisy, capable of taking apart 200 iPhones per hour; Liam, custom-built for the iPhone 6 with the ability to disassemble 1.2 million iPhone units per year and Taz, specifically developed to help workers easily access the valuable rare earth elements inside electronics by separating them. Recycling that large number of iPhones a year sounds impressive until you take into account publicly disclosed iPhones sales figures - almost 52 million units, in Q3 2022 alone. Advancing recycling technology and introducing robots to help recover precious elements at scale is an innovative solution, but sadly it’s only a single drop in the ocean of e-waste.

With the current rapid turnover of devices, electronic waste is a global blight, but if it was dealt with properly, there could be lucrative ways to recover and re-use the planet's rare resources. When your smartphone becomes obsolete, some of its parts haven't lost their value and leaving it in a drawer somewhere or throwing it away would be a waste of valuable materials which could otherwise be re-used. A million of 'dead' mobile phones could source 16 tonnes of copper, 350kg of silver, 34kg of gold and 15kg of palladium. You won't find a natural ore with this high concentration of minerals.

Do Your Bit

In a time where the threats facing our planet are too great to ignore, these precious metals are more precious than ever. Humans are very good at talking the talk on the need to protect natural resources, but barely crawling when asked to walk the walk. We are all responsible for taking care of our planet and in order to stop e-waste, everyone needs to get involved.

Relevant reading:

Making a Change with Compare and Recycle

It’s not a big effort to recycle your phone when you’re done with it, especially with so many merchants willing to buy your old phone. Compare and Recycle will help you get money back for your phone and keep your phone away from polluting landfills.

While the majority of mobile phone manufacturers continue to avoid finding innovative ways to safely recover materials and re-use them for the production of new devices, we're inspired by the thousands of people initiating the change and using Compare and Recycle to keep their phones away from landfills. Together we managed to prevent more than 28.1 tonnes of mobile phones from becoming waste last year alone, so what are you waiting for?

Antonia

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