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The environmental consequences of our smartphone addiction

Posted June 26th 2017

Most of us now use smartphones on a daily basis, but we give little thought as to the materials contained within them. All smartphones contain a mix of precious metals such as platinum, palladium, gold, silver and copper.

A typical iPhone, one of the most predominant smartphones on the market, contains a mix of 0.034g of gold, 0.34g of silver, 0.015g of palladium and a very small amount of platinum (under a thousandth of a gram). In addition to this it also contains 25g of aluminium and 15g of copper.

Around 40% of a standard smartphone is composed of metals and the unfortunately less than 10% of these handsets are typically recycled which means the materials contained within them are not able to be recovered and used again. When you consider the sheer number of people who own a smartphone – over two billion – and the fact that most people will typically upgrade their phone every 1-2 years, the amount of material going to waste is staggering. With the smartphone obsession looking more likely to grow rather than fizzle out any time soon, the implications of this are important. These are finite resources and cannot just be tapped endlessly – there is a limit to what is available.

One solution would be to decrease the frequency with which we change smartphones, although this is highly unlikely to work in practice. It is, however, important to make people aware of the implications of their behaviour and encourage them to consider this. Awareness could also help to recover some of the materials sitting in old smartphones if people are encouraged to return them. Just one million old handsets could be turned into almost 16 tonnes of copper, 350kg of silver, 15 kg of palladium and 34kg of gold.

Although there is no clear solution this is certainly a problem that needs to be talked about. Awareness can help to alter people’s behaviour and may help us to preserve and recover some of these much needed resources.

metals in smartphone