Is a new smartphone a smart choice?

E-waste is piling up and rare metals are running low | by Jack McGovan

Is a new smartphone a smart choice?

The release of the latest iPhone has once again condemned older models to a life outside the spotlight. There's rarely a second chance for these devices. Most of our old electronics go to landfill. In 2019, only 17% of electronic waste (e-waste) was recycled. When we consider that e-waste is the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world, this becomes even more problematic. More alarming still is that a lot of metals used in the production of electronics are in a ‘critical’ situation, which means their reserves are set to run out within the next 100 years, according to the European Chemical Society.

Mining is an essential part of how we retrieve metals from the Earth. The raw material, called ore, is extracted and then processed until a pure form of the metal is obtained. This has serious environmental consequences. “Mining operations are responsible for the contamination of air, water and soil, deforestation and biodiversity loss,” Professor Karen Hudson-Edwards, an expert in sustainable mining, tells SAN over email. Gold mining is, for example, considered a major cause of deforestation in the Amazon. ‘Globally, most high grade ores have already been exploited’, she wrote in a Science article, ‘As a result, current mining operations are associated with higher volumes of waste.’ This means that, as our metal reserves decrease, extracting them requires more and more resources.

“Many companies have already developed sustainable mining policies,” says Hudson-Edwards, “these policies aim to protect the environment and human rights and health.” Given the negative environmental impact of mining, she makes it clear that consumers can help by buying products that contain metals from responsible sources. Fairphone, for example, is a smartphone that sources the ore coltan from artisanal and small scale mining, which prioritises the local economy and environment.

“Mining operations are responsible for the contamination of air, water and soil, deforestation and biodiversity loss” - Professor Karen Hudson-Edwards

Recycling metals

As an expert in urban mining, Dr Nicolas Schaeffer’s research focuses on how to better recycle metals from electronics. “The good thing about metals is that, in theory, you can recycle them continuously and they won’t lose any quality,” he tells SAN. “Recycling is more efficient [than mining] because the metals are more concentrated. A circuit board has roughly 15% copper, whereas copper ore has around 1%.”

Recycling processes for metals are, however, mainly dictated by economics. “If the price of the original ore is cheap, then there’s no incentive to recycle”, Schaeffer continues. Lithium, for example, is more cost effective to mine. Gold, on the other hand, demands a premium that no recycling company can refuse.

Despite the green label associated with the word, when it comes to metals, recycling is far from harmless. The majority of e-waste is exported to and recycled in developing countries where health and environmental regulations are relaxed. E-waste is usually burned, which releases toxins into the environment that are known to cause cancer, nerve damage and reproductive issues.

“The biggest problem is that by not recycling metals properly, we’re spreading them around society," Schaeffer says. "This means they can no longer be found in concentrated areas like mines.” The consequence of not recycling is that in the future, we’re going to have to find these rarified metals in our landfill—quite literally, we’ll be looking for a needle in a rubbish stack.

“Even if we would recycle all metals, increasing consumer demand means that we will still need to mine more” - Dr Nicolas Schaeffer

Community action against e-waste

Of course, not all e-waste ends up in landfill; some is lost in the deepest, darkest corners of our homes. “Lack of information is a big reason electronics are not recycled properly,” Timmy de Vos, CEO of the E-Waste Race, tells SAN. “Some people aren’t aware of the impact their electronics have on the environment. Others are willing to recycle but don’t know how to do it properly.”

The E-Waste Race is a Dutch initiative where schools compete to collect the most e-waste in order to win a free school trip. The friendly competition drives up the effectiveness of their collection efforts. Local residents can also offer their e-waste through the website and choose a pickup time that suits them best. “This makes it really convenient for those looking to recycle,” de Vos continues.

To ensure the recycling happens properly, the team works with the local municipalities to collect the e-waste directly from schools. In some cases, they have been able to work with second hand shops. “If possible, we like to give a second life to electronics before recycling them,” he says.

Though his expertise is in the Netherlands, de Vos says that, at least in most places in the EU, there will be somewhere in your local area to dispose of electronics properly. To complement the collection of e-waste, the team also runs an educational project that tackles the issue of electronics overconsumption.

The coming decades

The need for renewable energy technologies and increasing desire for consumer electronics is driving the demand for critical metals higher. “Even if we would recycle all metals, increasing consumer demand means that we will still need to mine more”, says Schaeffer. He does, however, reiterate that it would also help to recycle more than the current measly 17%.

While we might not ever truly run out of critical metals, these will become more scarce. So what can we do to help?

As both mining and recycling methods have demonstrable environmental impacts, the best course of action is to repair and reuse. Companies like Fairphone, or Gerrard Street in the Netherlands, offer modular electronics that can be easily repaired. In other cases, buying second hand keeps metals in the system without having to recycle them. Where none of this is possible, recycling electronics through the proper channels, or only buying from companies with sustainable supply chains, is your best bet.

Article written by Jack McGovan (@jack_mcgovan)

Photo by Andrew Guan on Unsplash