What happens to a smartphone after it is thrown away?

'The impacts on the planet are devastating and, when you consider all of the materials and energy required to make these devices ... it’s clear we can’t continue this way'

Discarded mobile phones can leak toxic chemicals into the ground. Getty
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There was nothing at all wrong with it, apart from a slight crack at the bottom of its screen. For nearly three years, my Apple iPhone 6 Plus had worked faultlessly, proving to be the best piece of tech I'd ever bought. Until it didn't. Inexplicably, it ­recently began crashing, freezing while I was trying to use it for something important and causing me to reboot. Among its ­seemingly infinite uses, my smartphone doubles up as a voice recorder for interviews and, as such, it has become a tool that helps me do my job. If it were to give up the ghost mid-­interview, the ensuing ­problems would be too ­numerous to mention, so it was with extreme reluctance that I faced the inevitable conclusion that this wonderful device had become too old and I had to buy a new one.

I’d read about Apple’s trade-in pledge and checked on its website to see how much my old iPhone would net me if I handed it over for recycling. Bearing in mind it cost me more than Dh3,000 to buy, I could be forgiven for snorting at the Dh90 I was offered. So I’ve kept it, just for emergencies, in case I lose or break its replacement. Because, like most people I know, I have ­become a slave to these things – a life without an iPhone, for me at least, is unfathomable.

The rise of smartphones

It’s estimated by Greenpeace that nearly two-thirds of all people between 18 and 35 years of age own a smartphone, and that in the past decade nearly 8 billion have been manufactured. Which means that, over the next year or so, that same amount will have been tossed aside, sent for recycling or just slung in drawers with lots of other useless electronic detritus.

Why would Greenpeace be even remotely bothered about smartphones? Surely these glassy, glamorous and insanely clever hand-held computers are nothing but a force for good in the world? Hardly. In fact, they’re having a considerable ­environmental impact. Pressure is growing, from lobbyists and consumers, for manufacturers to do more to extend the lives of their devices (possibly not their favoured option), or at least do what they can to make them easier to dismantle and recycle. Oh, and perhaps stop exploiting the planet for the precious minerals that are used to make them in the first place.

According to a recent Greenpeace report, more than 60 elements are commonly used in the manufacturing of smartphones, and while the amounts of each element in a single device may seem small enough to not worry about, the combined impacts of mining and processing these precious materials for nearly 8 billion devices is significant.

Your phone's case will be made from aluminium and plastic that's manufactured from crude oil. The wiring will be made from copper, silver is used in the solder, while gold and palladium are found in printed circuit boards. Cobalt is used in the making of its battery, its little speaker contains neodymium, tungsten goes into the motion ­stabiliser, indium (which at current extraction rates will run out in the next 14 years) into the ­display screen and gallium goes into the LED backlights.

Then there’s the matter of graphic chips, memory chips, integrated circuits and processors, all of which are made from silicon wafers, which require huge amounts of water and energy to produce.

'The average device is used for just over two years'

The countries where these ­elements are mined are ­usually developing ones and the people working to get them out of the ground work in less than ideal conditions – and this lucrative business fuels armed conflict in some countries. In the factories where the devices are pieced together, workers are often unknowingly exposed to hazardous chemicals and materials that cause damage to their bodies, and the increasing complexity of the technology housed within puts ever greater strain on energy sources, which are often highly polluting.

“If all the smartphones ­produced in the last decade were still functional,” says Elizabeth Jardim, Greenpeace USA’s senior corporate campaigner, “there would be roughly enough for every ­person on the planet. Consumers are pushed to upgrade their models so frequently that the average device is used for just over two years.

“The impacts on the planet are devastating and, when you consider all of the materials and energy required to make these devices, their short lifespans and the low rate of recycling, it’s clear we can’t continue this way. We need devices that last longer and, ultimately, we need companies to embrace a new, circular production model.”

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As for recycling, it’s not as eco-friendly as you might think, in the case of smartphones and tablets. Their totally sealed construction makes disassembly practically impossible, so the majority are shredded and sent for smelting, to separate the precious metals within for reuse. Not that it’s a particularly efficient or successful process.

What can you do to help?

“We are calling for a new business model,” continues Jardim, “in which smartphone manufacturers take into account the impact their popular devices are having on our planet, and the desire of consumers to slow down the rate of phones they go through in a decade. Manufacturers should measure their innovation not by fewer millimetres and more megapixels, but by designing devices to last, by making them easily repairable and upgradeable, and using components and materials that can safely be reused again and again to make new phones.”

A pipe dream, perhaps, but what can we as individuals do in order to minimise the impact our old devices are having? First of all, don't throw them in the bin because when they end up in a landfill they can leak toxic chemicals into the ground. If your phone or tablet is still usable, either give it to someone else or sell it, thereby extending its lifespan. And if it really is nothing more than scrap, hand it back to its maker. Apple might not be offering more than a few dirhams for them, but the company does recycle its own products at its own facilities, where the entire process is strictly monitored.

As things currently stand, that’s probably the best any of us can hope for, but all of us would benefit from doing whatever we can to resist buying brand new smartphones just because they’re “the latest thing”. The only winners in that scenario are the ­companies that sell them.