This fall, iPhone 8s and Xs hit shelves across North America, setting in motion that most time-honored of rituals—the smartphone funeral.
Around 1.5 billion phones are sold a year, which means about as many get the heave-ho. With little ceremony, we shove them into drawers, or pack them away into boxes.
Occasionally, we might just throw them away. We feel sheepish about it, and for good reason: once trashed, they end up in landfills, leaching toxic chemicals into the soil. In fact, electronics account for up to 70% of landfills’ toxic waste.
To avoid this guilt, we try to take our phones—not to mention all those broken printers, dead Fitbits, and cracked iPads—to recycling centers. Driving away after such a drop-off feels good: we did the responsible, eco-friendly thing.
But what happens to these devices after we leave? The answer is complicated and, in most cases, far from eco-friendly. Welcome to the murky world of e-waste “recycling,” aka the sordid afterlife of your smartphone.
The myth of e-waste “recycling”
If the recycler is a reputable organization, it first checks to see whether your electronics can be refurbished and reused. If so, they’ll be scrubbed of data (hopefully) and either donated or resold on the secondary market. Devices that won’t sell in the U.S. are typically shipped to distributors in South America or Asia. (Remember the Motorola Razr? Long after its popularity faded, there was a booming market for it in Latin America.)
If the electronics are past the point of no return, they’re sent to recycling plants and put through powerful, all-purpose shredders. Metal components are then shipped to one of a handful of registered smelters, where they’re melted down. A few precious metals from the circuit boards, including gold and palladium, are recovered from the molten liquid, but the vast majority of materials are left to burn, releasing chloride, mercury and other vapors into the atmosphere. This is far from a “cutting-edge” solution: smelting technology literally dates to prehistoric times.
Yet, smelting is still a “good” option, if only because the alternatives are far worse. For nearly every above-board recycler, there’s a corresponding organization whose methods are more dubious. These operations make money by collecting e-waste, packing it into shipping containers, and selling it through a shadowy network of middlemen to scrapyards in countries such as China, India, Ghana and Pakistan.
The environmental cost of such a transaction is high—but the human cost is higher. Walk the streets of e-graveyards in West Africa, Asia or another part of the developing world, and you’ll see some microentrepreneurs essentially cooking printed circuit boards to extract the metals within. The smell in the air is dizzying, and sticks in your nostrils and throat for days.
In the process, these workers are exposed to nickel, cadmium, and mercury among other toxic fumes, which leak into the surrounding air, ground and drinking water. This can lead to a wide variety of serious, sometimes life-threatening health problems, including cancers and birth defects.
Searching for a better afterlife for our smartphones
Environmental and human costs aside, there’s another glaring problem with how we currently treat end-of-life electronics—we’re literally chucking gold in the garbage.
Right now, miners have to hack through around a metric ton of rock just to get three grams of gold—a process that exacts massive environmental tolls. Manufacturers, in turn, use gold inside circuit boards because it’s highly corrosion-resistant. When we toss our gadgets in the trash, the gold goes with them. This adds up: It’s estimated that the gold in the world’s e-waste equals as much as 11% of the total amount mined each year—literally millions of pounds of thrown-out gold.
But manufacturers and retailers are slowly starting to take steps in a better direction. Apple, Samsung, Best Buy, and Amazon incentivize consumers to return old devices in exchange for cash or gift cards. (Hand over a non-cracked iPhone 6, for example, and you’ll get $145.) Apple has even started using a 29-armed robot to recycle old iPhones. Dubbed “Liam,” the machine is able to take apart an iPhone every 11 seconds, recovering and reusing high-quality materials.
Yet one of the big obstacles remains technology. The trace amounts of minerals inside a typical phone simply don’t justify the enormous expense of extraction. But promising approaches are emerging. Sonic technology, for example, is poised to transform the mineral-recovery process. By applying powerful underwater sound waves, we’ve shown that eventually all 24 of the minerals used to make an iPhone can be recovered (a smelter typically recovers a fraction of that), without releasing toxins into the environment.
But our best hope lies in efforts by manufacturers to design expressly with reusability in mind—a cradle-to-cradle approach to production known as a circular economy. Apple and other companies, for instance, have come under pressure to make screens, batteries and other components easier to replace and upgrade. “Fairtrade phones,” with modular components, are still a novelty but gaining a foothold. In the not too far-fetched future, smartphones could well separate into their component parts at the touch of a button, freeing up materials to re-enter the supply chain.
The tipping point, as is often the case, will come down to economics. Only when it’s cheaper for companies to reuse component parts—rather than manufacturing from scratch—will our old phones truly meet a better fate. But consumers can accelerate this shift—voting with our wallets, rewarding companies embracing a cradle-to-cradle ethos, and letting laggards know it’s time for a change. After all, nearly 100 million pounds of toxic e-waste is generated each year. It’s time we found a way to let our phones rest in peace, once and for all.