Compare and Recycle

What's Inside My Phone?

Our phones are construction marvels. Complicated, smart and harmful to our environment if disposed of irresponsibly.

The global average for the number of times that the typical person checks their phone in a day is 58. If we average those checks out across the entire time that a typical person is awake for, we get a phone check every 16.5 minutes.

It's safe to say that we're dependant on our phones. However, most of us probably don't even know which valuable materials are used to make them. The fact that our phones are incredibly smart and capable of doing things unimaginable to us 10 years ago, you'd think we would stop treating them as so disposable.

In this article:

The Issue With Raw Material Supplies

Manufacturers don't tell us in the ads what raw materials were required to produce the latest and greatest device. Ads communicate the benefits of upgrading and why the new phone is X times better than the one you have now. If we knew the truth about what our phones are packing inside, maybe we'd be more careful when using them.

It takes a lot of different materials to make those little 120g in weight pocket-sized computers to work. 62 metals to be exact and all of them are irreplaceable, according to researchers from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Relevant reading:

Which Rare Ingredients Are Inside Our Phones?

Indian Tin Oxide (ITO)

Smartphones come with touchscreens that are convenient and easy to use, allowing more room on screen to watch videos and deliver bezel-less designs. The high conductivity of Indian Tin Oxide is what makes it perfect for touch screen application. The ITO substance is made into a film screen that conducts electricity whilst being completely see-through. This makes our screens responsive to our finger taps and gestures, allowing us to see content without interruptions.

The value of this rare raw material is approximately £700 per kilogram. The mining process of indium is very harmful to eco-systems, to people involved and causes health issues such as Indium lung disease. What's more alarming, is that we're running out of Indium and in the near future, we will eventually exhaust it completely.

No matter how efficient we are at recycling, if we don't design products in a better manner for reuse and recovery at the end of their product life, we'll run out of everything.

Lithium Cobalt Oxide

The long run-time of this component makes it a crucial material for smartphone batteries and gives our devices the juice to operate. Layered with cobalt, lithium-ion batteries can be recharged and deliver high energy density.

With smartphones packing even bigger batteries exceeding 3,000 mAh, the demand for lithium is rising. The mining process endangers access and supply of  water to local communities, causes pollution and releases toxic elements resulting in social and environmental consequences.


This element is included in our phone screens and is vital in the making of silicon chips which power our 6-inch devices. Silicon has super powers and it acts like a semiconductor. It has the ability to conduct electricity under certain conditions and can function as an insulator under others.

Without silicon mining, most of the digital devices we use everyday wouldn’t be possible. However, long-term exposure to silica dust, means that workers who mine for crystalline silica are at risk of developing lung diseases such as silicosis, lung cancer and chronic bronchitis. Silicon mines also emit crystalline sillica into the air, posing a threat to animals and natural habitats due to their harmful effects.

Copper, gold and silver

These elements are primarily used in wiring and compose micro-electrical components. Together with other minerals such as palladium and platinum, these minerals are used in the electrical circuits of phones.

Experts believe that the Earth's entire copper reserves will be mined by 2025. If this is the case, it means that the new iPhone you get next year, will need to be used for much longer. The estimated number of these metals in an iPhone are around 0.034g of gold, 0.34g of silver, 0.015g of palladium, 25g of aluminium and around 15g of copper. The environmental risk of copper, gold and silver mining can't be neglected.


Without nickel and coatings, assembling a smartphone just wouldn't be possible. This metal is essential for lead-free solder and the prevention of corrosion. Without it, our phones would quickly become a useless piece of electronic junk.

With the use of mines, power plants and trash incinerators, nickel is released into the air and settles onto the ground or falls down after interaction with rain. A high concentration of nickel in soil harms plants and if it contaminates water, it will reduce the growth rate of algae.

Relevant reading:

The Problem

Unfortunately, the supply of these raw materials is not infinate. The fact that our phones pack critically rare elements as well as less valuable ones like copper, means we are running out of both categories of metal faster than we thought. We are seeing evidence that there isn't enough copper to keep up with the demand on the market and on top of that, it becomes even more difficult to discover new sites to mine. Whilst no one can give us a definite deadline, what we do know is that it's approaching fast.

Here's What We Can Do

Most of us are probably thinking that someone in a lab will figure out a solution soon enough. But as cliché as it sounds, why can't we be that someone? If we do not take action now, then there's a very real possibility we'll run out of all the key raw materials a lot sooner than we think. By that we mean materials which are needed for gadget production, including those responsible for touchscreens, batteries and chips.

So, what are we going to do? Go back to writing letters by hand and use pigeon delivery?

We need to stop single-use and re-think the way we treat appliances that are crucial to our everyday lives. Small steps such as recycling old tech, reaching out to recycling companies to pick up your old fridge, look out for free tech take back programs, and of course trading in your unwanted phones.

Relevant reading:


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