What Happens to Old Smartphones?

CC BY 2.0. William Hook -- The old iPhone 4, so recently launched, and yet so outdated already.

From grinding to melting, e-waste recycling is a sadly inefficient and ecologically disastrous business.

Before you rush out to buy the new iPhone 8 or X, stop for a moment to put things into perspective. Do you really need this updated version? Is your old one still functioning well? Do you know what will happen to your old phone?

That last question is one that deserve serious scrutiny these days. As the turnover rate of smartphones speeds up, and the number of people using them increases, the quantity of electronics waste generated annually is mind-boggling. Every year 1.5 billion phones are sold and nearly 100 million pounds of toxic e-waste are generated. These horrifying numbers may mean little to inhabitants of wealthier North American and European nations, for whom old phones disappear from sight and mind, but they create a hellish reality for many people in developing nations, since that's where the old phones usually end up.

An article by Peter Holgate for Recode lists some shocking facts about the afterlives of our smartphones. Once a phone cannot be used anymore, nor is there a market for it elsewhere in the world, it is sent to a 'recycling' plant for shredding. The ground-up phone is then sent to a smelter and 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."

But not all of the gold can be reclaimed. An estimated 11 percent of the gold that is mined annually is lost to these meltdowns.

Phones that are not melted down get shipped to developing nations like Ghana, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China, where they're dismantled and burned by individual sellers -- "essentially cooking printed circuit boards to extract the metals within."

It is an absurdly inefficient system, considering the astronomical environmental and human costs that go into sourcing all the many components required to allow one to swipe right or left on a screen. (Read about the awful conditions in which cobalt is mined in Congo.)

The real problem is that it's still too cheap to mine for precious metals and minerals. Until it costs phone manufacturers more to get virgin material than to recycle it properly, this issue will continue to plague us and manufacturers will not prioritize the design of phones that can be easily dismantled and reused. (Unless it's a company like Fairphone that just does it because it cares.)

It's not entirely the fault of manufacturers, however; production is driven by hungry consumers, people who cannot live without the latest upgrade. We need to question what we truly need, make our electronic belongings last as long as possible, and demand better design from the companies we support.