Are you one of those people who always have to have the latest phone (or tablet, or laptop computer)? Let’s just discuss smartphones for a moment; as of 2018 the number of cell phone users in Canada was over 30 million people, which is 4 out of 5 Canadians. And that is just this country. You may want to reconsider the habit of changing your phone every time you see a new one coming out.
Smartphones contain a variety of rare elements like indium, platinum, gallium, selenium, and copper. More than half of the elements needed to manufacture that electronic device are becoming very scarce to the point that we may run out of them within 100 years .There are varying reasons for these scarcities including limited supply, the location of these elements in areas of conflict, and the inability to recycle them. EuChemS (European Chemical Society) has released a new Periodic Table to illustrate this problem and help to promote better understanding into this dilemma.
Copper can be used as an example. There is not enough being discovered to keep up with the demand. It is one of the top three needed metals in the world. It is used in smartphones, desktop computers, industrial machinery, and so much more. It takes about 20 years from its start to get a copper mine up and running due to the difficulty in finding new sites, fluctuations in its market value affecting the commercial viability, regulatory restrictions, and other factors. The quality of the copper coming out of the mines is falling as well making the mining of it less commercially practical. This is a truth with gold and silver mining as well. If it costs you more money to mine something than the market values this product, it wouldn’t make much sense to continue.
There has been much discussion within the chemical and technology industries about how to resolve the problem of material scarcity. The main takeaway is that a multi-faceted, global approach is needed with a focus on recovery and recycling and the improvement a phone’s life. If your smartphone lasts longer, you would not need to replace it as quickly. There is one initiative called Project Ara, Google’s blueprint for the world’s first modular phone. This would allow you to be able to make a phone to suit your needs and replace parts as needed. Apple and other companies are working to improve their supply chains as well.
A big problem with recycling is that some of these materials are used in such small amounts in a phone that they can be hard to extricate from the device. This could also add to the cost because of the difficulty in removing them for recycling. Current recycling techniques only focus on a limited number of metals and once disassembled a smartphone is a mess of mixed elements making it difficult to separate from each other.
Currently, up to 70% of the world’s overall toxic waste in landfills are electronics with only a small portion being recycled. A phone has a life of approximately 24 months for the average user meaning there is more wasted every day. Much of the electronic waste from developed countries gets shipped to poorer countries where they can be dismantled improperly and burned, releasing toxins into the surrounding environment and negatively affecting the health of those workers and nearby communities.
A change in attitude is needed to improve these problems. We have to rethink how we dispose of electronics. For a world that sorts their household garbage, it is funny that most of us don’t do that with our electronics. Maybe we need to reconsider this overwhelming need to get “the next best thing” every time it comes out.
For more information about this topic, check out the following websites: