This year marks 150 years since the creation of the first recognisable version of the periodic table in 1869 by Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev. The periodic table displays all the chemical elements we know about – and now it seems that some of them are running out due to how much they are used in modern technology.
Chemical elements in mobile phones
Modern mobile phones contain around 30 chemical elements, including copper, gold, and silver which are used in the wiring, and lithium and cobalt which are used in phone batteries. On smartphones, the colours on the display are produced by using tiny amounts of rare-earth elements, including yttrium, terbium, and dysprosium. Rare-earth elements are a group of 17 chemical elements – all metals – that are difficult to mine as they aren’t typically found in concentrations high enough for economical extraction.
Not only are these elements critical for mobile phones, but they are also used in other technology we use, in sprinkler systems, solar panels, camera lenses, and microchips.
Natural sources of six of the chemical elements used in mobile phones will run out in the next 100 years, and several more are under threat and have been put on an endangered list. Why?
Why chemical elements in mobile phones are running out
According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, who has conducted research on this topic, these chemical elements are becoming increasingly scarce due to increased use, limited supplies, their location in conflict zones, and the lack of recycling.
The statistics from the RSC’s research are astonishing:
- 51% of UK households have at least one unused electronic device (such as mobile phones, computers, smart TVs, MP3 players, and e-readers)
- 45% have up to five unused devices
- Of these, 82% don’t intend to recycle or sell their devices when they no longer use them
- 52% of 16–24-year-olds have 10 or more gadgets in their home – so the problem is set to grow
This increased usage and insufficient recycling (it’s estimated that around 10 million smartphones are discarded or replaced every month in the EU) are two reasons that chemical elements in mobile phones are running out, but it goes further than that as these elements could potentially be needed in future technology, for example green energy.
There is also an environmental and human rights impact that comes from increased use of these elements.
- Extracting rare-earth elements in China has a massive environmental impact
- Mobile devices contain ‘conflict elements’, i.e. elements that are sourced from areas of conflict such as war and child labour. An example of this is the cobalt and gold mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
What is the solution?
According to Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, “It is a lesson to us all to care for the world around us, as these naturally occurring elements won’t last forever unless we increase global recycling rates and governments introduce a genuine circular economy.”
Responsibility for solving this global problem falls on all of us as there is something each of us can do to contribute:
- Retailers can introduce take-back schemes to help consumers recycle their tech safely
- Manufacturers can build repairability and recyclability into new designs
- Governments can create the infrastructure needed to facilitate a circular economy
- Scientists can work to find alternatives elements and more effective ways to extract elements from used devices and recycle them
- Individuals can avoid changing their phones every few years and recycle old devices
As Robert Parker, CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry says, “Chemical scientists are already working to find ground-breaking solutions – by investigating long-term substitutes for rare elements in devices, or by finding new chemical methods to extract precious materials and reuse them – but we all can and must do more.”
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