There’s nothing more exciting than a brand new smartphone. The anticipation as you open the box, that shiny unscratched screen, the updates and improvements that will make your life so much easier…
But our obsession with owning the latest model is having a huge impact on the earth’s resources.
The problem with smartphone components
Every smartphone contains around 62 elements, including gold, silver and copper in the wiring and lithium and cobalt in the battery. They also contain tiny amounts of rare earth elements such as yttrium, terbium, and dysprosium. And with more than 2 billion smartphones in the world the demand for these elements has rocketed over the past few years.
Many of these metals and minerals are difficult to extract from the earth and the process can have a devastating impact on the surrounding environment, as well as on the people involved. The mineral coltan, for example, is mainly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where civil unrest has been a problem for years. Miners endure harsh conditions and with mines frequently located in conflict zones, it’s common for militias to control production and profits. Mines have also led to significant deforestation in the country, leading to a reduction in the population of many endangered animals. This includes the bonobo which is found in the wild only in the DRC and which has been in decline for the last 30 years.
What’s more, by their nature, there is a finite amount of these essential elements in the world and there is currently nothing equivalent to replace their use in smartphones. It has been predicted that some elements – for example, dysprosium – could run out within decades.
Recycle your smartphone
So what can you do about it? Well, the obvious answer is to recycle your old phone when you get a new one to reduce the strain on the earth’s resources. Recycling means that the phone can either be refurbished and sold on or the precious components inside can be extracted to be used again. Research by the Royal Society of Chemistry found that 51% of UK households are holding on to at least one old electronic device – which adds up to a whopping 40 million lying around in drawers or cupboards.
There are lots of different options when it comes to recycling your phone. If you really want to feel good about it, many charities offer this service in their shops or online to help them to raise valuable funds for their cause. Oxfam and Wateraid are just two examples and Twycross Zoo has set up a phone recycling scheme specifically because of the impact coltan mining has in the DRC.
Alternatively, you can turn your phone into cold hard cash by sending it to one of the big recycling companies, such as Envirofone, or taking it to a high street reseller such as CeX. There’s some helpful advice on the Money Saving Expert website on the best ways to do this.
And of course, remember to wipe all your personal data from the phone before you hand it over! Recyclers will wipe data before they do anything with it but it’s more secure (and better for your peace of mind) to do it yourself first.