TENDUA - Association for biodiversity conservation

Mobile phone and smartphone : what is their real cost?

A bit of history

In April 1973 - 50 years ago - a Motorola employee made the first cell phone call in New York City. While wireless technology already existed, the “cell phones” of the time were reserved for luxury cars. It takes 10 hours to recharge the battery allowing for 30 minutes of talk time.
Ten years later, in 1983, the transition was made from the prototype to the commercial model. The device is still expensive: its price is equivalent to almost 10,000 USD in today’s money. The phone is heavy, imposing, every call is expensive... But the technological revolution is underway.
In 1992, the first GSM (Global System for Mobile) phone, the Nokia 1011, was produced on a large scale. This technology is the ancestor of the 3G (and the following) that we are now using.
The first SMS – “Short Message System”, a message sent to a mobile phone from a computer – arrived the same year.
For more than 20 years, our phones have almost all been smartphones and the landline phone has all but disappeared. The smartphone allows you to make phone calls, take photos, access an ever-increasing number of applications, your mailboxes, etc. Rich countries, poor countries, from megacities to the smallest hamlets, from the powerful CEO to the humble Indian farmer, everyone has a smartphone, or several.

Twelve kilograms of rocks for 52 chemical substances = ONE smartphone

An ore is a rock extracted from the lithosphere that contains a large enough amount of mineral to warrant mining. When sufficient ore is found, mines are built to exploit the vein to its maximum capacity. Minerals contain the chemical elements used in our smartphones. In particular, they are involved in the manufacture of the shell, the battery, the electrical circuits and the screens. Did you know that it takes 52 chemicals from various minerals, or 12 kg of rock, to produce only ONE smartphone?...

Native elements that cost a lot of money

Some ores are classified as “native elements”, i.e. “minerals, or consisting of a simple body formed essentially of a single chemical element, or an alloycharacterized by a few associated chemical elements sufficiently pure”. [1].
Today, we know 34 native elements in the strict sense, including copper, gold or silver... Many of these chemical elements, more or less “rare”, have become essential to the functioning of new technologies. And they are expensive because their natural availability decreases.

So-called “rare earths”

Rare earths are 17 chemical elements used in various industries, such as electronics and renewable energy. They have many common properties – such as high electrical conductivity – which makes them difficult to distinguish from each other. And contrary to what their name suggests, rare earths are not so “rare”, but they are not found in their native state. In fact, their rarity is not in their quantity, but in their concentration: it takes an average of 8 tons of rock to be excavated to obtain 1 kg of raw material.

Sphalerite, the main mineral in zinc, can be used as an ore containing rare metals, in significant content, such as cadmium, indium, gallium and germanium.
Sphalerite, the main mineral in zinc, can be used as an ore containing rare metals, in significant content, such as cadmium, indium, gallium and germanium.
© Myriam Dupuis

Sphalerite, the main mineral in zinc, can be used as an ore containing rare metals, in significant content, such as cadmium, indium, gallium and germanium. Very common, huge quantities of sphalerite are mined throughout the world and this mineral has become the main ore of these rare metals for several decades. Remarkable deposits are found in France, Peru, Russia, Switzerland.
Another mineral characterized by its richness in rare earths is bastnaesite. But the extraction processes are polluting because of its radioactivity.

Yttrium, used to produce red phosphors for televisions and computer screens, is 400 times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than silver. But rare earths are widely dispersed and do not come in the form of easily exploitable ores. They can be mined in copper, zinc, or uranium mines. Some of them are present on the Moon... In any case, the extraction process is very expensive and highly polluting. This is why China is practically the only country to do so, with an almost 100% monopoly on the processing of rare earths from ores of other metals. Europe prefers to leave these polluting farms to others.

Japan has declared significant reserves of several rare earths in the depths of its national waters. Moreover, we know that the abyss is very rich in metals. Canada has come up with a giant vacuum cleaner that can – perhaps? – resist the pressure of the depths. Everyone is looking, but subsea mining is still too expensive at the moment. Do we need to specify the tragic impact that such exploitation of the metal deposits of the seabed would have on ocean ecosystems?

Special case of lithium

Lithium and its compounds promote energy production and battery performance. They are used as essential ingredients for the manufacture of low melting point glasses and lubricants. The manufacture of rechargeable batteries for electronics, electric vehicles and energy storage within grids accounts for the world’s largest use of lithium, accounting for 74% of total demand. Lithium-ion makes it possible to combine both fast charging for convenience and slow charging for longevity. The need for lithium is expected to increase to 42 times in the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency.

Australia is the world’s largest lithium producer, accounting for nearly half of global production in 2021. Bolivia, Chile and Argentina (the “lithium triangle”) are said to have the largest lithium resources, estimated at nearly 50 million tonnes. Indeed, there are gigantic salt pans in South America and it is through the settling of salt that the necessary lithium is obtained, an operation that requires a lot of water.
There are also lithium reserves in France (reopening of mines in Alsace and Brittany?), but the quantities are smaller. Moreover, the former Minister of Ecological Transition, Barbara Pompili, declared exclusively in Les Echos on 17/02/2022:

“France must extract lithium on its territory”.

However, the precious metal is more difficult to isolate than in the brines of South America. Because, in nature, lithium is never present in its native form but always in the form of salts, or oxides, in minerals. In addition, lithium metal can only be stored in oil and in a protective atmosphere because it is too reactive to be stored in water or air. Which makes it dangerous to handle.
In Europe, Donbass also has lithium reserves. The UN is talking about adding lithium to the list of elements of conflict.
As for Canada, the government has designated lithium as a critical mineral because it is a critical material in the transition to renewable energy and Canada has the potential to be a supplier of it. Canada does not currently produce lithium, but it does have significant deposits of solid spodumene and salt lakes from which lithium can be extracted.

Geopolitics and high technology

This is where the concept of globalization comes into its own. Like a poem “à la Prévert”, let’s list the different countries involved in the production of the elements necessary for the manufacture of these little marvels of technology.
South Africa has a monopoly on platinum: a big advantage for this ore because it is the one that can be recycled best. It acts as an anti-corrosive of our smartphone’s battery.
Cadmium, known to be carcinogenic, is used for rechargeable batteries, television or computer screens, tablets, consoles, etc. The main producing countries are South Korea, Japan, China, Canada and Mexico.

Gallium, produced mainly by China, is used for liquid crystals in increasingly high-performance screens.
Indium is used for LEDs and touchscreens of all sizes (better brightness of smartphones, watches, tablets, car dashboards, etc.), as well as on some glazing and solar panels. The producing countries are China (yes, again!), South Korea, Japan. There are no indium mines. It has to be sought, often in zinc mines. So it’s expensive.

Cobalt is very important in all batteries: phones and cars. It absorbs heat so that “it doesn
Cobalt is very important in all batteries: phones and cars. It absorbs heat so that “it doesn’t burn”.
© Myriam Dupuis

Cobalt is very important in all batteries: phones and cars. It absorbs heat so that “it doesn’t burn”. Currently, it is estimated that there will be no cobalt available in 50 years.
Quartz is used to stiffen screens. It is a common mineral. Quartz is the basis of all electronic systems. It is used directly as a sensor that can measure a frequency with very high accuracy, making it indispensable in applications such as inertial measurement units or radar or radio communication transmitters and receivers.
Finally, gold and silver have valuable qualities: they are very good conductors for the rapid transmission of information. Silver comes mainly from South America : Chile, Peru, Bolivia. As for gold, the main producers are Russia and China.

The so-called “conflict” mineral elements

The UN is monitoring these four so-called “conflict” minerals like milk on the fire, also known as “blood minerals”. These are gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum.
While gold is a good conductor, tungsten – one of the hardest metals in the world, used in the manufacture of ballistic missiles and drills – found in wolframite among other things, improves the conductivity of gold and silver. Little information is available on the mines exploited in western China (perhaps in the land of the Uyghurs), which nevertheless account for more than 80% of the world’s production.
As for tantalum, extracted from columbite and tantalite or “coltan”, it is a superconductor, resistant to heat as well as corrosion. Itmakes it possible to lighten and miniaturize our smartphones, cameras, computers, flat screens, etc. It is also used in the manufacture of superalloys in aeronautics and its biocompatibility makes it interesting in the manufacture of medical implants.
The main producing countries are Australia, Brazil, China, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda.
For motherboard soldering, tin is used. Three countries exploit the main tin ore: cassiterite. China accounts for 2/3 of world production. Indonesia and Malaysia have carved out entire areas and sacrificed islands for this production. Coastlines have been emptied of fish; starving and impoverished populations; One worker a week dies on these sites.
The production of these “blood minerals” is often controlled by armed groups that exploit these mines in inhumane conditions and sell the minerals to the highest bidders to finance their movements. In the 2000s, the international community discovered these particularly strong ties in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the African Great Lakes region, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, Burma and Colombia. Twenty years later, have there been any changes – for the better? Tens of thousands of diggers, adults and children, still work in the coltan, cassiterite and gold mines.
This is true for coltan because it is found at shallow levels, which has generated real rushes. The other side of the coin is that agriculture has been replaced by mining, which has led to famines. These famines have in turn led to overexploitation of tropical forests, including the poaching of fragile species such as okapi and gorillas (“bushmeat”).
It should be noted that Russia and Donbass hold large reserves of nickel, cobalt and lithium needed to manufacture smartphones, consoles, electric vehicles, wind turbines and other solar panels. The current conflict may not be as ideologic as the media would have us believe.
But at the end of the chain, the companies that manufacture mobile phones are protected by the many intermediaries involved in this trafficking.

The production of these “blood minerals” is often controlled by armed groups that exploit these mines in inhumane conditions and sell the minerals to the highest bidders to finance their movements. In the 2000s, the international community discovered these particularly strong ties in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the African Great Lakes region, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, Burma and Colombia. Twenty years later, have there been any changes – for the better? Tens of thousands of diggers, adults and children, still work in the coltan, cassiterite and gold mines.
This is true for coltan because it is found at shallow levels, which has generated real rushes. The other side of the coin is that agriculture has been replaced by mining, which has led to famines. These famines have in turn led to overexploitation of tropical forests, including the poaching of fragile species such as okapi and gorillas (“bushmeat”).

It should be noted that Russia and Donbass hold large reserves of nickel, cobalt and lithium needed to manufacture smartphones, consoles, electric vehicles, wind turbines and other solar panels. The current conflict may not be as philanthropic as the media would have us believe.
But at the end of the chain, the companies that manufacture mobile phones are protected by the many intermediaries involved in this trafficking. Up to the consumer therefore to be enlightened and not to bury his head in the sand!

Collection & Recycling

Of the 25 million phones put on the market each year in France, only 15% are then collected to be repaired, reused or recycled. This is clearly not enough.
In fact, at the moment, only lithium and platinum are recyclable.
One of the first obstacles to lithium recycling is that lithium-ion batteries (BLI) are a hazardous material that must be handled with care: the residual electrical power found in them can cause fires or explosions.

If we can’t do without our smartphone, do we really need to change it every year? To own more than one? It’s an opportunity to think about our role as consumers, and to really become an actor in our consumption.

One company stands out for its approach in this high-profitability technological environment: it is FAIRPHONE. Indeed, this Dutch company creates smartphones whose design and production of devices have been designed to integrate environmental and fair trade constraints throughout the production chain.
FAIRPHONE increases the amount of recycled materials in its devices: recycled copper and plastic for the FAIRPHONE 3; plastic, indium, copper, aluminium for the FAIRPHONE 4, which also has traceability for the gold and silver that make up their device. The modularity of their phones also improves their recyclability at the end of their life, since some modules concentrate certain metals, such as gold, for example.
Not necessarily exemplary – but are we exemplary as consumers? – The approach has the merit of existing and going further than the competition. So why not a smartphone made from recycled elements?

Conclusion

With more than 10 billion mobile phones in the world, the smartphone is both a democratic and a technological object. Could we do without it?... Unsure. Unless you have to.
We have seen the “mineralogical” cost of a single device. Not to mention mining waste, which is sometimes used as backfill, but is also a deposit loaded with lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc. In France, an open-air operation is backfilled, but an underground operation is left as it is, without more attention to the water tables or the surrounding agricultural land.
In addition to production-related pollution, there is also use-related pollution: cyberspace is saturated with our data, each more important than the last, and this, at a speed close to that of light. All this data also generates a lot of pollution...
So, let’s go back all the way? It’s not going to work. However, there are still at least two areas to explore. The first is undoubtedly a reflection to be carried out by each person on his or her own way of consuming and the consequences involved. A second avenue is to think about the present of tomorrow: what are the jobs to invent to protect life on our planet and preserve what we call resources. Let’s train engineers to deconstruct and deconstruct, let’s learn to systematically reuse even the elements that are not yet recycled today; Let us ask ourselves about the consequences at each stage of our consumption; Let’s become more aware of our environment and how we act on our reality.
At the end of the day, it was our planet that invented recycling, so let’s draw on this wisdom if we want humanity to have a place on this Earth in the future.

Sources : musée de la minéralogie- École des mines à Paris

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