Where did your latest smartphone come from? Yeah, probably Congo

Have you ever considered what goes into the production of your mobile phone?


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever considered how much energy goes into the production of your phone? Or considered how many elements are used in making one? Any clue as to where these elements come from?

Say hello to the world of rare earth mining and excavation that makes your slim, smart, sleek phone a reality. Close to 40 elements are used in the production of a mobile phone and the most important are the rare earth elements. The mines from where these elements are extracted are ugly giant holes that look more like craters on the moon than anything earth-like. These rare earth elements are obviously hard to find, and miners have to dig dipper and dipper to extract them and separate them from the other elements.

Rare earth mine mineral in Mountain Pass, California which looks like a deep crater on the moon.

Rare earth mine mineral in Mountain Pass, California which looks like a deep crater on the moon. Pic via oyeta936 blog

 Mobile phones and conflict minerals

The-Chemical-Elements-of-a-Smartphone-v2

Chemical Elements in a smartphone. (Click photo to enlarge). Pic via Compound Interest

In the production of mobile phones, a rare earth metal called tantalum is used that basically stores electricity in our phone. Tantalum is extracted from an ore called coltan, which is primarily found in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Tungsten makes sure that our phone vibrates and tin is used in making circuit boards. Combined with gold, which us used to coat the wiring, these form the “conflict minerals”. The demand for these elements led to the Congo conflict of 2008. The funds that come from illegal mining finance the soldiers and their weapons contribute to the conflict that has already cost 5 million lives.

The working conditions for the mine workers are inhumane and their lungs are affected by mineral dust. Even children work under hazardous conditions just to be able to support their families. Numerous mines are situated in the vicinity of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where some of the last gorillas can be found. (source) It is estimated that over 220 pounds of mine waste is generated to extract the gold for a circuit board of just one cell phone. (source)

 

Carbon footprint of a mobile phone

In just one year, it is estimated that one mobile phone uses the energy equivalent to 32 gallons of gas, and emits 112 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2). One estimate for the emissions caused by manufacturing the phone itself is just 16kg CO2e. If you include the power it consumes over two typical years (that’s about how long the average phone remains in use, even though most could probably last for 10 years) that figure rises to 22kg. On this basis, mobile calls account for about 125 million tonnes CO2e, which is just over one-quarter of a per cent of global emissions.

In 2009 there were 2.7 billion mobiles in use: nearly half the world population has got one. Silicon India recently reported that the number of active cell phones has reached 7.3 billion, so there are more mobile phones than there are people on the planet right now! (source)

Recycling old mobile phones to reuse precious metals

Every year, 140,000,000 cell phones (that’s 4 per second!) will make their way into a landfill, where they will collectively leach 80,000 pounds of lead into the earth and groundwater supply of surrounding communities.According to the sources, an estimated 85 million phones are lying unused in the UK alone. It is important that we recycle the old phones so that the metals can be reused. The value of these precious metals in 85 million discarded phones exceeds 150 million pounds. In the year 2008, only 3 % of the phones were recycled. Not for profit scheme MobileMuster is one such recycling program in Australia urging people to recycle their old phones. If recycled properly, they will prevent 1300 tonnes of carbon dioxide being produced – the equivalent of almost planting 8000 trees or taking 365 cars off the road.

In India, Karma recycling, Attero and E-Parisaraa are into recycling unused mobile phone and other e-waste. Even companies like Nokia and Samsung accept mobile phones for recycling.

Exploring alternatives

Though replacing the use of rare earth elements is difficult, it is possible to explore alternatives. Research should be carried out to find alternative sources as it is possible that at least one important element in mobile phone will economically become untenable within 15 years. Mobile phones are ubiquitous, however millions of lives get sacrificed every year for the production of newer ones. Let us take a pledge to follow good recycling and reusing practices to ensure that our future does not resemble a giant junkyard of used phones.
Sources:
http://www.cnet.com/news/digging-for-rare-earths-the-mines-where-iphones-are-born/

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/rare-earth-elements-in-cell-phones/

http://www.rareelementresources.com/rare-earth-elements#.VXemUc-qqko

http://www.whatsinmystuff.org/key-facts/

http://www.compoundchem.com/2014/02/19/the-chemical-elements-of-a-smartphone/

http://www.enoughproject.org/files/minetomobile.pdf

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/leader/news/melburnians-urged-to-recycle-their-old-mobiles-to-reuse-precious-metals/story-fnglekhp-1227380023401

http://www.pcmconstruction.com/pdf/safe_work_procedures.pdf

http://gizmodo.com/the-metals-in-your-phone-arent-just-rare-theyre-irre-1477904295

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/jun/09/carbon-footprint-mobile-phone


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A dreamer with a singular expression - Smile! Sanket is a media and journalism student at Symbiosis International University. When not writing, you can find him sipping coffee and reading entrepreneurial, political and leadership books. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A dreamer with a singular expression - Smile! Sanket is a media and journalism student at Symbiosis International University. When not writing, you can find him sipping coffee and reading entrepreneurial, political and leadership books. more

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