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Smartphones: of rare earths, recharging and recycling

Blog post   •   Oct 03, 2017 11:00 GMT

Your average smartphones is made up of over 60 chemical elements (Photo by Rodion Kutsaev)

How often do you change phones? When you do, do you stop to consider what is behind that piece of equipment that has become so essential to our lives? There is a whole "take, make and dispose” industrial model involved in making a smartphone, and it is extractive and non-sustainable. But looking beyond that there is a concept aimed to redefine products and services to eliminate waste – the circular economy.

The lifespan of a smartphone is defined by many factors, including how you recharge your phone. Software and hardware depend on each other and they all have different life cycles.

Software keeps being updated and it is designed to take advantage of ever-increasing internet speeds and the latest hardware capacity, so even if you have a mint condition phone from 2014 it may not be able to cope with today’s processing needs.

Hardware itself is becoming more capable and efficient; availability of resources and open source movements akin to what the software industry has witnessed are increasing manufacturing pace.

All this means that our phones consume more energy. Yet powering it all is the familiar lithium-ion battery with a lifespan of 300-500 charging cycles (your phone goes through a charging cycle every time you plug it when it’s below 70%). Technically, your battery is only designed to work properly for about a year to a year and a half. After that you can expect diminishing charge periods, heating, and glitches.

The chemistry behind

Making an average smartphone requires over 60 chemical elements, and that is taking a large portion of Earth’s natural resources. The most sought-after among them are known as rare earths, a group of 17 elements coveted for their magnetic and conductive properties. Thanks to them our phones are lighter, faster, stronger, and more efficient. Some estimates say that Chinese mines will run out of rare earths within the next twenty years.

However, while we certainly need to be conscious of the environment, it is not all gloom and doom, but also a matter of perspective. Rare earths were believed to be scarce when they were discovered in 1787, hence the “rare”, but they seem to be rather well-distributed in the Earth's crust.

In fact they make up about one-fifth of naturally occurring elements, and are at least twice as abundant as copper. Besides, we don't consume them nearly as quickly because rare earths are to technology what baking soda is to chocolate chip cookies: a little goes a long way.

The main problem with these elements lies in that some production sites are engulfed in geopolitical and social issues. Extraction in such contexts can be problematic, especially for local populations.

So where do you fit in?

  1. Recharge smartly: Estimates vary, but your new phone’s battery capacity could dwindle between 15 and 22% in a year if you charge it from empty to full every time you plug it. This is called a full-discharge cycle. But if you charge it when the indicator shows between 20 and 90%, your battery will probably last longer than 300-500 charging cycles.
  2. Buy consciously: You could also consider using Fairphone, an Amsterdam-based company which aims to create positive social and environmental impact throughout their phone’s life cycle by opening up their supply chain.
    They encourage the reuse and repair of their devices, as well as research in electronic waste and electronics recycling around the world. Apple’s into it too, have you seen their iPhone recycling robot Liam and the story behind it?
  3. Mind your waste: No matter what smartphone you go for, when the time to change your old device comes, take it to a specialist dealer for recycling (usually you can return your old phone to a shop where you buy a new one, or do the same with your operator).

Here at Panalpina we are also playing our part to support the circular economy, for example at our site in Dubai where we run diagnostics and repair operations for smartphones, tablets, laptops and games consoles. In addition, many locations have e-recycling programs in place to comply with our green IT policy.

We all need to work together to make the circular economy a reality.