- Victoria Hill
- BBC News correspondent
According to scientists, there is an urgent need to speed up the processing of electronic waste, as the extraction of precious metals for the manufacture of new gadgets is unviable.
According to research, the mountain of discarded electronic devices in the world in 2021 alone weighs 57 million tons.
The Royal Chemical Society (RSC) believes that global efforts are now needed to extract this waste, not to extract the Earth.
Global conflicts also pose a threat to precious metals supply chains.
RSC is campaigning to draw attention to the unsustainability of continuing to extract all the precious items used in consumer technology.
The organization notes that geopolitical unrest, including the war in Ukraine, has led to huge price spikes on materials such as nickel, a key component of batteries for electric vehicles.
This instability in the market of elements causes “chaos in supply chains”, which allows to produce electronics. Combined with rising demand, this has led to an increase in the price of lithium – another important element of battery technology – by almost 500% between 2021 and 2022.
Some key components are just running out.
“Our habits of consuming technology are far from sustainable and run the risk of running out of raw materials,” said Professor Tom Welton, president of the Royal Chemical Society, adding that “these habits continue to increase environmental damage.”
Items present in smartphones that may end in the next century:
- Gallium: used in medical thermometers, LEDs, solar panels, telescopes and has possible anti-cancer properties.
- Arsenic: used in fireworks and as a preservative for wood.
- Silver: Used in mirrors, jet lenses that darken in sunlight, antibacterial clothing and gloves for touch screens.
- India: Used in transistors, microchips, fire extinguishing systems, ball bearing coatings in Formula 1 cars and solar panels.
- Yttrium: used in white LED lamps, camera lenses and can be used to treat some cancers.
- Tantalum: Used in surgical implants, neon light electrodes, turbine blades, rocket nozzles and nose parts of supersonic aircraft, hearing aids and pacemakers.
Smartphones contain about 30 different elements, some of which end on Earth.
At the same time, the amount of e-waste increases by about two million tons annually. Less than 20% is collected and recycled.
“We need governments to upgrade recycling infrastructure and technology companies to invest in more sustainable production,” said Professor Welton.
A new SRC study also found growing consumer demand for more sustainable technologies. In an online survey of 10,000 people in 10 countries, 60% of respondents said they would be more likely to choose a competitor to their favorite technology brand if they knew the product was environmentally friendly.
The survey also showed that people do not know how to deal with their own e-waste. Many respondents said they were concerned about the environmental impact of unused appliances they have in their homes, but did not know what to do with them or were concerned about the safety of recycling systems.
Elizabeth Ratcliffe of the Royal Chemical Society told BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science that many of us “inadvertently store precious metals in our homes” in old phones and unused computers.
“Manufacturers and retailers need to take more responsibility,” Ms Ratcliffe said. Manufacturers and retailers need to take more responsibility, Ms Ratcliffe said. – As return programs that allow people to return their electronics to retailers and be confident that they will be safely recycled.
“All this instability in the supply chain only exacerbates the fact that we need a circular economy for these materials. Now we are just constantly pulling them out of the ground.”
The company hopes to encourage people to take old and unnecessary devices to recycling centers instead of hiding them in boxes and forgetting about them. It directs consumers in the UK to online resources where they can find the nearest center that can safely recycle computers, phones and other devices.
“We always say we cut, reuse and recycle. This way, you can keep your phone longer and sell your old phone or give it to your loved one, ”says Ms. Ratcliffe. “It will require everyone working together to scale these processes and build the infrastructure so that we can all redesign our devices.”