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  • Mitchell Smith

Smartphone Recycling for Critical Metal Supply.

Modern smartphones have rapidly progressed over the last decade and we are likely to see huge technological leaps in the coming years. However, this progression is heavily dependent on the availability of an ever growing suite of metals. An ever growing suite of metals that are going missing…

We all have one at home, a drawer, a cupboard or an old shoe box that has a collection of old forgotten phones. Well it’s time to dust off those phones and get them recycled because these are an untapped stock pile of essential rare materials that will be in extremely high demand in the coming years.

Modern smart phones contain over 60 different types of metal. These include copper, aluminium, tin, tungsten, cobalt, gold, silver, platinum, palladium, 16 out 17 of the rare earth elements (REEs), and a whole host of others. Many of the metals in your phone are classed as “critical raw materials” these are defined as metals in high demand resulting in a risk to their supply chain. Over recent years our demand for these metals has grown substantially, fueled in part by our demand for smart phones. From 2010 to 2017 the number of smart phones bought increased from just under 300 million to 1.54 billion, resulting in strain being placed on the supply of these commodities.

Many of the elements that are used to make the screen, the camera, the battery and the microchips are at risk. A variety of REEs are used in the screen to produce vivid colours, as well as providing high powered magnets that make your phone’s loudspeakers. Indium is found in the screen combined with tin to form indium tin oxide (ITO) which results in a touch screen. Gallium, arsenic, phosphorous and antimony are found within microchips in the phone. Palladium and tantalum are used to make capacitors. In the battery you will find lithium, cobalt and sometimes manganese. Out of the named elements above, 8 are classed as critical elements and all the REEs share that classification. This is just a small selection of the materials used in modern smart phones.

Now not all metals in your phone are at risk. For instance, only 2% of our annual gold production goes into mobile phones. So, in terms of demand there’s not much need. In fact, we could mine the total amount of gold in every phone in existence in just over a month.

The cost of a phone purely based on the average Au, Ag, Pd, Cu, Co, Nd, Pr and Al content, comes to £2.04. If we recycled one phone for every new phone bought annually the recycled metals would have a value of £3.16 billion. A Staggering 54% of this value is from the gold content, 25% from the Pd content and 7.7% and 6.5% for Co and Ag respectively. The value of the known REEs recovered make up less than 0.15%. So, whilst gold is not a critical metal, its value could provide more of an incentive for recycling. Unfortunately, very little data is available on the critical element content, of mobile phones, so the calculation does not account for: In, Ga, Sb, Ta, P, or the other REEs

Reports vary on the percentage of phones that are recycled. Some sources claim 10%, however, others claim as few as 1%. There are several issues: firstly is cost effectiveness, second is our ability recover sufficient numbers of phones, and lastly how efficiently we can recover the metals. Most companies that buy back phones currently sell them on to the third world, as it provides a higher profit margin. This makes it very hard to collect used phones to be recycled, and unfortunately most that are sold on eventually end up in landfill, and once there are very unlikely to be recovered. Any recycling that is done today is predominantly focused on the precious metals. Currently more investigation is needed into recovering critical elements from phones.

As geoscientists, we are more aware than most of the limits of our natural resources and we do what we can to improve the efficiency of extraction of raw materials. The onus now falls on the wider world to make sure that the materials used are put back into the system. If we don’t, then based on the European Commission’s study on critical raw materials in 2017, we will lose: 11% of our annual palladium production, 56% of our annual indium, and close to 70% of our annual gallium production. One figure that is more alarming is that 42% of our cobalt production in 2015 went into lithium cobalt batteries. This last figure is set to rise in the coming years as we attempt to shift away from fossil fuel dependence with production of electric cars. According to a study in 2012 this same shift is predicted to result in a 700% increase in demand for Neodymium over the following 25 years. Currently 37% of our Nd is already used for magnets within electronics. This further emphasizes the need to plan for the future and find ways to recover these materials.

So, it is of the utmost importance that we don’t waste these materials and that we remember the importance of recycling our old phones. There are currently initiatives to recycle phones, notably the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has made its medals using purely recycled metals from old mobile phones. This will help to spread awareness of the potential of our old mobile phones, however more is needed in future to sustain our technological development.

Written by Lawrence Collins: I am a junior exploration geologist with a masters from the University of Leicester. I am passionate about economic geology (and recycling) and am keen to develop my career further in exploration.