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Regular readers will spot that today’s post is a bit of a twist on an old post from the site’s archives, which looked at the elements present in a smartphone and the roles that they play. In this updated version, I wanted to highlight which elements in your smartphone will actually get recycled at the end of its lifetime – and which we could be doing a better job at salvaging and re-using!

This graphic came about after a suggestion from Michael Bojdys, shortly after the post on ‘endangered’ elements. In fact, it’s quite interesting to look at this graphic and that one side-by-side. It’s quite clear that, as far as recycling the metals in a smartphone goes, we’re currently not doing a very good job! A UN report in 2011 came to a similar conclusion:

“Notwithstanding their potential value, industrial and consumer products containing these resources have often been regarded as waste material rather than as “surface mines” waiting to be exploited. This is a nearsighted and unfortunate view. As the planet’s mineral deposits become less able to respond to demand, whether for reasons of low mineral content, environmental challenges, or geopolitical decisions, we limit our technological future by using these resources once and then discarding them.”

For some of the elements highlighted here, there are obvious benefits to salvaging them and using them again, rather than further depleting our reserves of them. The rare earth elements are perhaps the most pertinent example. Their name is something of a misnomer, as the rare earths, mainly composed of the lanthanide series of elements near the foot of the periodic table, aren’t actually that rare. They’re fairly commonly found in the Earth’s crust; the issue, however, is extracting them.

The problem with extracting rare earths is that they don’t tend to occur in particularly concentrated amounts in the crust. As such, the techniques required to extract them are costly and labour intensive, limiting the places in which it’s economically viable to bother extracting them at all. The processes used to extract them can also be environmentally hazardous, which is also a limiting factor; in 2010, China cut its exports of rare earths by 40% based on its concerns regarding pollution.

With this in mind, recycling the rare earth elements at the end of their lives would seem to be a no-brainer. However, there isn’t a single rare earth element whose end of use recycle rate is greater than 1%. This is due to a variety of factors. Part of it is the fact that sometimes, no attempt is made to recycle the devices containing them at all. Many of us are guilty of this one; I’ve got a handful of phones buried in a drawer somewhere, their rare earth bounty lying dormant and unused.

Another issue is, of course, a lack of recycling processes. Googling ‘recycle my phone’ will bring up a horde of options to sell on your phone second-hand, but little in the way of options that involve genuine recycling of the materials in the phone. Some processes for recycling can reclaim the metals from the phone or its components, but aren’t particularly efficient, and again fall into the economically unviable trap.

Metals in electronics tend to have a relatively long life cycle, so it’ll probably be a while before any change is seen, even if a change in attitude towards recycling these elements is enacted. However, it’s likely that, in cases where the supply of some of these elements becomes more limited, new recycling methods and incentives will appear, and might help turn some of those red circles green.

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References & Further Reading