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In a world where time is viewed as a depreciating asset, the need for instantaneous answers to questions is vital to save this precious commodity. Cell phones have transformed the way humanity communicates with one another, allowing us to instantly be in touch with people in virtually any location on earth.
The cell phone is a rapidly evolving piece of technology and manufacturers are developing new cell phones every year to keep up with the rising consumer demand. The need for effective reuse and recycling of cell phones is therefore becoming increasingly important as the number of models becoming obsolete each year is getting higher.
A downside of cell phones however is that they have non-repairable internal parts that tend to corrode. Batteries and electronics can also easily be damaged through overheating whilst the screen display can struggle to operate in extreme cold.
Parts of Cell Phones
Cell phones have a number of working parts, each with their own specific life cycle.
- Circuit board/printed wiring board
- Liquid crystal display (LCD)
- Plastic casing
Materials Contained in Cell Phones
Cell phones have a complicated composition and contain a variety of different elements and materials. A summary of the composition of a cell phone is as follows:
- 50% Plastics (case and circuit board)
- 15% Copper (wires and the battery)
- 15% Glass Ceramic (screen and microchips)
- 4% Cobalt/Lithium (battery)
- 4% Carbon (battery)
- 3% Ferrous Metals (case)
- 1% Tin (circuit)
- 0.5% Silver (circuit)
- 0.5% Zinc (circuit)
- 0.5% Chromium (circuit)
- 0.5% Tantalum (circuit)
- 0.5% Cadmium (circuit)
- 0.5% Lead (circuit)
- 0.3% Other materials (including arsenic and gold)
The elements of most concern to the environment are lead, zinc, cadmium and arsenic which, if in landfill sites, can enter the water supply.
Environmental Impacts of Cell Phones
Approximately 100 million cell phones each year are either damaged beyond repair by a user or made obsolete by the development of a new phone, and so end up in landfills. Under high temperatures or direct sunlight, the lithium-ion batteries in a cell phone can explode, conditions with are commonplace in landfill sites. The lead, arsenic and zinc in cell phones will also pollute surrounding soil and water.
Thankfully, efforts are being taken to recycle cell phones. Because cell phones contain different metals, chemicals, plastics and other potentially hazardous substances, it is very important to recycle, donate or trade in old cell phones. Companies such as ReCellular collect 25,000 cell phones daily from over 40,000 collection sites.
Recycling Process and Applications of Recycled Phones
Statistically, one in six people across the world carry a cell phone. That equates to over one billion cell phones currently being used by consumers, which in a year's time, if not already, will be outdated and potentially disposed of.
During 2010, in the United States of America alone, 152,000,000 cell phones were disposed of with only 17,400,000 (11%) of these being recycled. Roughly 86 tons of silver and 6 tons of gold found their way into landfill sites through incorrect disposal of cell phones in 2010. To put this into perspective, at current prices, that is $54,000,000 and $244,176,000 worth of silver and gold respectively which entered landfill sites across the United States during 2010. The total global value will of course be significantly higher. Cell phones can be split apart into their raw materials in some cases and then these materials can be put to use in other technologies and applications. In other cases, cell phones can be refurbished and sent to other countries for purchase on their consumer markets.
There are a number of steps that follow on from delivery of a cell phone to a recycling center; firstly, its basic components are disassembled. This will include metal and plastic from the casing and its basic internal components such as the housing and memory. After this step, the circuit boards will be broken down, any accessories, chargers and batteries will all be separated. Even the packaging of the cell phone will be recycled.
The cadmium inside the cell phone battery can be extracted and then used to produce new batteries. Copper in batteries can also be recycled fairly easily.
Circuit boards are slightly more complicated and contain many metals including gold, silver and lead. If recycled efficiently, this can lower the demand for sourcing these metals as a virgin raw material and so reduce the environmental impact of mining them. The plastic from phone casing can even be recycled and reused in fencing around homes.
There are non-profit organisations that happily accept donated cell phones to give to people who need them. Cell phones can also be sent back to their manufacturers, if they have a specific recycling program, free of charge. Another simple way to ensure cell phones are not ending up in a landfill is to reuse them by passing them onto children or other family members.
As the demand and resulting production of cell phones rises, the pressure on users and manufacturers to ensure that their phones are being safely disposed of will also increase - if not through direct reuse, then via recycling of all of its components.
With the green revolution taking the planet by storm, it is likely that manufacturers will try to source recycled materials to produce their cell phones and make sure that every part of the device is designed for disassembly with minimal components having to be scrapped in landfills.
Sources and Further Reading