Long gone are the days of clunky and bulky mobile phones that only served a utilitarian purpose. We are now smartphone-addicted. A mobile phone is not just a useful tool for communication; but an accessory to showcase our personas and picture-perfect lives on social media. Some brands have even capitalised on the trends in the luxury industry. The crème de la crème of phones are now displayed under mood lighting like designer handbags or gold jewellery that we lust after from the windows of stores which we dare not walk into unless we have ample cash to spare. Like luxury goods with little practical purpose, they spark our deepest desires and now play a highly symbiotic and ornamental role in our daily lives.
But my interest, however, is not in the aesthetics of the smartphone; but the rare-earth metals that underpin its spectacular engineering. Rare-earth metals play a ubiquitous yet unseen role in modern society. Their role in the tech industry–and in our lives–is pivotal in connecting us to each other through the devices which have become an extension of ourselves.
Rare earths comprise of 17 metallic elements located in the middle of the periodic table (atomic numbers 21, 39, and 57–71). In geological terms, rare earth elements are not actually rare. They were given the name because it was originally believed that there was a small supply of these elements on earth. Prior to 1965, there was also little demand for rare-earth metals. The existence of these rare metals came to light in the 18th century when Swedish army Lieutenant Carl Axel Arrhenius found a unique black mineral in a small quarry in a town near Stockholm.
Deposits of these metals are found in many places around the globe, but never found in high concentrations. They are usually mixed together with one another or with radioactive elements. The chemical properties of the rare-earth elements makes it difficult to separate it from the surrounding materials and from each another.
Current production methods require a lot of ore and generate a great deal of harmful waste to extract relatively minuscule amounts of rare-earth metals. The waste that ensues from processing methods includes: radioactive water, toxic fluorine, and acids. The mining of rare-earth metals causes major damage to the environment and without a solid waste management plan; the mining of these materials can threaten both the environment and public health.
China has about 37% of the world’s reserves of rare-earth metals, while Brazil comes in second at 18% and Russia takes third place at 15%. Meanwhile, the U.S. has only about 1%, per the same source. As the world’s leading producer, China accounted for 132,000 metric tons of produced rare-earths in 2019.
Smartphones contain a range of rare-earth elements–including yttrium, lanthanum, terbium, neodymium, gadolinium and praseodymium. Two billion smartphone users upgrade to a new phone roughly every 11 months; of which barely 10 percent get recycled. Outside of the fact that many of these smart phones are still working when they are ‘upgraded’, the destiny of these old smartphones is to live out the rest of their lives in a drawer somewhere…or worse, get disposed of in a highly irresponsible and offhanded manner. In economic terms, it is akin to a goldmine that is sitting in cupboards, in boxes and in landfill. Wasting such valuable substances makes zero economic sense.
It is a truism in business that it is consumer demand that drives production and business decisions. The truth is that we, as consumers, need to stop upgrading our smartphones so habitually. Changing consumer behaviour is often the least viable option and business leaders find themselves in a position to either follow the trend or get left behind.
The challenge right now is recovering, recycling and repurposing these rare-earth metals safely and economically. A significant proportion of e-waste gets exported to China. Guiyu–in China’s southern Guangdong province–is a town that has been known as the world’s electronic graveyard for over two decades. It is where many of the world’s old and unwanted electronic products go to die. In 2015, a report by the United Nations University estimated that the retrieved materials; including gold, silver, iron and copper, were worth US$52 billion.
There is a lot we can do to recycle responsibly. Instead of being lured into buying a new phone, we can instead continue to use the phone that’s still working and perhaps repair it if its performance has declined. We can also donate devices that are still in working condition. For instance, instead of buying your child a brand new phone, you can get them started with one of your old phones. And lastly, make full use of e-waste recycling programmes voluntarily offered by industry stakeholders.
Aesthetic and True Value
The true value of your phone is not in its outer beauty, but in the materials that reside within it. The smartphone is not merely a fashion accessory, but a miracle that was created by the Earth with the ingenuity of the human mind.
The next time you decide to trash your phone, remember that it is a treasure trove of the Earth and the least you can do is use it responsibly for the duration of its life–and recycle it responsibly when it is time to say farewell.