The environmental cost of making a smartphone
11/11/2018 // Edsel Cook // Views

A smartphone does not just cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. An article on Eco Watch reported that the hidden costs of manufacturing billions of these cellphones include the destruction of the environment and the depletion of natural resources.

All kinds of metals go into each smartphone. Without these materials, the phone will not be as smart, slim, or light. Be it the recognizable gold or the much less-known subdued terbium, these metals must be extracted from underground deposits. Mining them makes up a big chunk of today's economy.

Anything that involves mining will cause serious harm to the environment. But mining related to materials used in making smartphones has heavier penalties than most.

Mine tailings spills connected to aluminum, copper, and iron

The three most numerous metals in a smartphone are iron, aluminum, and copper. When combined, they can take up as much as 41 percent of the total weight of the unit.

Mining operations for these metals produce huge amounts of mine tailings. Be it solid or liquid, tailings are generally worthless and toxic. They are usually stored in embankment dams and tailings ponds.

If built and maintained the wrong way, a dam or pond will burst, releasing its toxic contents into the surrounding area. The resulting spill can rival natural disasters.

The biggest known tailings spill took place in November 2015. It involved the embankment dam of an iron mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil. The dam collapsed, unleashing a veritable flood of mine tailings that rampaged for hundreds of miles before eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean.


That disaster is the worst out of 40 similar spills over the past 10 years. (Related: Is the Grand Canyon being put in danger by nearby uranium mining?)

Gold mining poisons the Amazon while tin dredging ruins Indonesian waters

While nowhere as numerous as the three above, a fair amount of gold and tin can be found in each smartphone. The connectors and wiring are made from gold, while tin is used in electronics and touchscreens.

Gold mining is one of the greatest contributors to the demise of the once-immense Amazon jungles. The mine tailings produced by these operations contain high concentrations of cyanide and mercury. These toxic wastes can taint drinking water and fish that humans eventually consume.

Tin is dredged out of the seabed surrounding the Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung. These two islands provide around a third of the world's supply of this metal.

The dredging operations have annihilated the coral reefs in the area. Without those reefs, the fish have nowhere to call home. Their numbers have dwindled, causing the local fishing industry to tank.

Rare earth mining has produced one of the most heavily polluted lakes on Earth

Last but definitely not least, the rare earth elements put the "smart" in smartphones. These technology metals are used to build speakers, microphones, phone vibrators, and screens.

China currently has a near-monopoly on these materials. It has paid a hefty environmental price for this economic lead.

Rare earth elements can only be extracted through the use of powerful acids. The industrial process churns out immense amounts of waste products that are so toxic, they make cyanide and mercury seem harmless in comparison.

An artificial lake in Baotou, China stores the waste materials from rare earth element extraction processes. Called the "world's tech waste lake," it looks like something straight out of Mordor.

So think twice the next time you want to toss away your "old" smartphone for the latest model. Hanging on to your phone for a year can help reduce the damage to the environment.

Get informed about the other, more direct ways your smartphone could be harming you at

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