Dr Patrick Byrne is a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, and Karen Hudson-Edwards is a scientist at the University of Exeter.
Nearly five billion people worldwide will use a smartphone by 2020. Each device is made up of numerous precious metals and many of the key technological features wouldn’t be possible without them.
Some, like gold, will be familiar. Others, such as terbium, are less well-known. Mining these metals is a vital activity that underpins the modern global economy.
But the environmental cost can be enormous and is probably far greater than you realise. Let’s walk through some of the key metals in smartphones, what they do, and the environmental cost of getting them out of the ground.
Catastrophic mine waste spills
Iron (20%), aluminium (14%) and copper (7%) are the three most common metals by weight in your average smartphone. Iron is used in speakers and microphones and in stainless steel frames.
Aluminium is used as a lightweight alternative to stainless steel and also in the manufacture of the strong glass used in smartphone screens. Copper is used in electric wiring. However, enormous volumes of solid and liquid waste (termed mine ‘tailings’) are produced when extracting these metals from the earth.