Do you know what the materials in cell phones are? Do you responsibly recycle your old cell phones? Cell phones that end up in landfills put us all at risk, the planet, animals, and people. Unfortunately, only 1% of all cell phones are recycled properly. Your cell phone is a powerful and well-crafted device, created using a rather extensive process. Currently, every cell phone is made using toxic materials and mining for rare earth minerals. Since cellphones are an important component of your everyday life, you can work towards being a more eco-friendly cell user. Here we explain what the materials in cell phones are and the dangers they can present. Plus, we provide answers how to better protect you and the planet from your ultimate sidekick, your cell phone.
Due to the many different used materials in cell phones, your phone is a powerful pollutant. Most phones are made of 40% metals, 40% plastics, and 20% ceramic materials and trace minerals. Different parts of your phone contain different materials.
Printed Circuit Board
Most of the electronic components of your phone are mounted onto the printed circuit board. According to a study out of the Netherlands by the Delft University of Technology, 50% of the pollution problem caused by cell phones can be attributed to the circuit board. The actual circuits are typically made with copper and protective adhesives. The board itself is made from epoxy resin or fiberglass and coated with gold platting. Other materials found in the circuit board can include, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, lead, palladium, silver, and zinc.
Liquid Crystal Display, LCD Screen
The liquid crystal display is the thin screen covering your phone, and accounts for 39% of the pollution caused by phones. Real liquid crystals are buried between the many thin layers of glass on your screen. Within this liquid toxic mercury lurks. Thankfully, there is a big movement right now to create more environmentally safe LCD screens, although they are yet to be in existence.
Cell Phone Battery
As discussed before on our blog, batteries will someday be a thing of the past, but until then batteries remain full of toxins. Batteries are made using zinc, cadmium, copper, and nickel, all of which pollute the environment when left to rot in a landfill.
Your Phone’s Outer Shell/Casing
The plastic casing that outlines your phone might seem like the least toxic part. Made of polycarbonate and/or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, this un-electronic component of your phone causes environmental damage. This is largely because of the brominated flame-retardants used to keep the plastic casing from catching fire when your phone gets hot. Unfortunately, brominated flame-retardants are toxic, bio accumulative, and persistent, making them harmful to your health and the health of the environment.
Rare earth minerals are used to make up the materials in cell phones so they operate as they do. All throughout your phone are small amounts of rare earth materials. Rare earth minerals (including Yttrium, Neodymium, Dysrosium, and others) are used to make the iPhone brighter, louder, and all around better. The color screen, speakers, and phone circuitry contain the most traces of rare materials, although the glass polishing, and vibration contain a fair amount of them too.
So what are rare earth minerals and what sorts of harms do they posses? Rare earth minerals are difficult to mine, and just as their name suggests, they are rare. If we don’t find a new substance to substitute rare earths it will become unsustainable to mine for them at such high rates. It’s not just your phone that contains rare earth minerals; the battery of a Toyota Prius actually contains 20 pounds of rare earth minerals!
A big part of the problem with mining for rare earth minerals is the impact it can have on local communities. In Mountain Pass California, a publicly traded company called Molycorp mines for rare earth minerals. Thankfully, Molycorp is trying to create more environmentally sustainable ways to mine for these minerals, but not all companies are taking the eco-friendly approach.
In China, where over 90% of rare earth minerals are mined, farms surrounding the industrial city of Baotou are experiencing the devastating effects of poor mining procedures. During the mining process, the unwanted materials are sifted through and then dumped in a Baotou lake that is heavily guarded. Despite the guards, the lake is not properly lined and toxic waste has seeped out into the surrounding farming villages. One reporter from the Daily Mail snuck past the guards one night only to be struck with a terrible scent and an, “apocalyptic sight.” The lake is literally a smelly black pit of doom. Farmers in the area complain that they are growing prematurely white hair, their animals get sick, and no vegetation will grow in the ground anymore. The soil near this lake contains 36 times more radioactive thorium than normal. Thorium is a material miners must dispose of when isolating the more valuable rare earth minerals. China has started to hike up the costs on these rare minerals, this will hopefully get the ball rolling in terms of finding new ways to produce phones without disrupting our environment so much.
Rare earth minerals are actually used throughout the materials in cell phones. In fact, each cell phone contains a few grams of rare earth. When phones are carelessly tossed away in the trash these minerals go to waste. When you properly recycle your phone, these rare minerals can be reused, reducing the pressure on miners and the environment (Read Article).
Mining is hard work, especially in regions that do not have high-tech equipment to assist with the job. Certain cell phones contain minerals that are mined out of conflict locations. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, workers of all ages are vastly mistreated and downright abused. Congolese miners are guarded with guns and often shot if they stop working or protest in any way. While a greater push is being made to shine awareness on this, only some brands have stepped up to the plate to demand change. Nokia and Motorola are 2 phone brands that have a green ranking. Meaning they don’t source the materials in cell phones they provide from places with deplorable conditions that violate the human rights of miners. By simply recycling your old phone, you are helping these miners by reducing the demand for these minerals.
156 million Americans have cell phones, including over 20% of all kids. To create cell phones a lot of resources are used, many of which are harmful to the environment. Then, when left in landfills the pollutants continue to add up. You might be thinking that a phone only pollutes the area directly where it is thrown away, but the effects are far more widespread. As phones sit rotting in landfills they leak all sorts of toxins into the soil and ground water, contaminating the entire food chain. If water is nearby, it can disrupt an entire ecosystem of animals. In fact because of the pathways that lead to where Arctic Polar bears eat and drink, researchers have identified high levels of Brominated flame retardants in the bears’ system. This can be blamed on poor recycling habits that have contaminated far away water, harming a species that might not seem unlikely to be impacted. In other words, the world is a circle where everything connects and you never know whom pollution will negatively impact.
Recycling your phone doesn’t just reduce pollution; it also saves the need to continually find new resources. For instance, the amount of gold in one cell phone is minimal, but when 1 ton of phones are recycled, 300 grams of gold can be salvaged and reused. This is huge considering half of all cell phone pollution is produced during the manufacturing process.
Since the materials in cell phones require so many toxic materials to build you are likely wondering about the negative effects your phone has while in use. All throughout its life, the phone is producing pollution and adding to the energy crisis. In only one year your phone eats up as much energy as 32 gallons of gasoline, it also emits 112 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
Your phone is like a mini microwave, and some researchers think without careful precautions your phone can also directly pollute your body. Many studies find no direct link between cancer rates and cell phone use. On the other hand, in studies where participants have used their phone for over 10 years there is a 40% higher risk associated with cancer. Cancerous tumors often correlate with the side of the head participants regularly hold their phone up to talk. It’s not just the cell phones; all of our current technology might be harmful to our health. According to 75% of studies conducted on the matter, Wi-Fi networks, cell towers, and materials in cell phones promote aging, brain damage, Alzheimer’s, and DNA damage. (Read More)
No matter how many risks the materials in cell phones might present, your phone is still a necessary component in your everyday life. Thankfully there are measures you can take to protect yourself and still enjoy the many perks of your cell phone.
1. Use your speakerphone option whenever you can: Set your phone down on your desk and use speakerphone to talk; this dramatically reduces the radiation that reaches you.
2. Don’t keep your phone directly on your person: Like in your pocket, for example. Instead, place it in a purse or somewhere away from your body.
3. Make your phone calls when you have a strong cell signal: When you have low bars and poor cell reception, your phone is working double time to capture a signal. This means more radiation is released when you try and make a call over a crackly line.
4. Never sleep with your phone beneath your pillow or close to your body: Even when it’s not in use your phone is constantly sending out signals to nearby towers.
5. Texting is actually safer than making a phone call: This is because text messages release less radiation than the materials in cell phones used to make phone calls. (Learn More)
Every 4 seconds another phone is thrown away in a landfill somewhere, this allows the toxic substances to start polluting the ground, surrounding water, and our entire planet. In one year that’s 14,000,000 phones leaking 80,000 pounds of lead into surrounding soil and water, this impacts communities near and far. You can do your part to reduce the damage caused by materials in cell phones by doing 2 simple things. First, instead of re-buying a new phone if yours breaks, come into My Broken Phone and have your phone fixed. Secondly, when it comes time to dispose of your old phone, don’t throw it out in the trash. Instead, visit any of our My Broken Phone locations to drop off your phone for responsible electronic recycling. Together we can make a big difference! (Find Out How)