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Don’t be fooled by the plastic shell or the glass screen of your smartphone: there is metal all over your smartphone. Gold, carbon, tantalum, copper, tin, our devices contain between 40 and 60% metals, according to the German environmental research institute Oeko. However, these materials come almost exclusively from mining, the environmental and social impact of which is extremely high.

The ideal would be to one day succeed in recovering all the metals from old equipment to produce non-mining raw materials for our smartphones. Where are the manufacturers in this area?

The composition of a smartphone.

What are the builders doing?

For now, manufacturers have focused on the easiest: using recycled plastic. This is the case with Fairphone. The fair-trade smartphone maker deserves credit for using 40% recycled plastic in its Fairphone 3+. Regarding metals, it guarantees a supply outside the conflict zone, which is already a real step forward. But it does not yet use recycled metals.

Samsung is also increasingly using recycled plastic, which is processed at its center in Asan, South Korea. It also attacked the steel, copper or aluminum recovered from its household products and computer devices. But for the moment, the reuse in its smartphones is limited: a little copper for the cabling, for example, or cobalt for the batteries. It is ultimately Apple that seems to go the furthest.

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Apple uses recycled rare earths

During their hearing this week by senators, representatives of Apple France recalled the ambitions of the brand in this area.
“Our goal is to one day manufacture products using only recycled or renewable materials (..) We clearly want to eliminate our dependence on mining”, said Clément Lelong, head of Apple’s environmental initiatives for Europe, India and the Middle East.

To achieve this, the brand must transform its supply chain from a linear to circular model. “We have identified a list of 14 priority materials”, added the spokesperson. Apple already uses recycled tin for soldering motherboards in 23 products. And the iPhone 11 and 12’s Taptic engine is made from recycled rare earths.

It is in the interest of manufacturers to resort more and more to recycled metals because this will reduce their dependence on supply sources whose prices and opening fluctuate. So why is this practice not further developed?

The world circuit of a smartphone.

A delicate operation but not impossible

Recycling metals from a smartphone is not easy. If we take the case of a wind turbine, its surface area is large and its composition simple: it is relatively easy to recycle. But the smartphone is an extremely compact object with a strong interweaving of its different elements. If it is not reusable, it is dismantled at the end of its life. Its most polluting elements like the battery are removed and its components are generally crushed. Ultimately, there are different processes to separate the metals within these aggregates.

Serge Kimbel is an electronic waste recycling specialist. His company Morphosis processes most of the smartphones collected in France. More recently, he created another circular economy company, WEEEcycling, to offer manufacturers the opportunity to extract metals from their end-of-life products and to re-use them as raw materials.

Of course, it is not easy to separate the metals so that they reach a satisfactory state of purity. “No metal is easy to recycle because they are all combined with each other. But nothing is technically impossible. We arrive at degrees of purity which are of the order of 99.99% “, assures the CEO. The main obstacles lie elsewhere.

Profitability is the main problem

If we take the case of rare earths, they are mixed together in the ores and need to be separated using complex and extremely polluting processes. For Michel Latroche, director of researcher at the CNRS at the Paris-Est Institute of Chemistry and Materials, their recycling could represent a promising solution, while chemistry has not yet succeeded in developing substitute materials. “We could create a real Western production of rare earths based on recovery. Japanese manufacturers have already succeeded in recycling permanent magnets such as those found in our hard disks, or even nickel-metal-hydride batteries ”, he tells us.

However, it is necessary to guarantee that these new processes are themselves environmentally friendly. Moreover, the question of their profitability is crucial to ensure the sustainability of the sectors. However, it is difficult to predict the evolution of the market. The example of the Belgian group Solvay, which had to close rare earth recycling workshops in La Rochelle and Saint-Fons in 2016, is still in everyone’s mind. “They had succeeded in separating and purifying rare earths in low consumption light bulbs, in a context of crisis where China had reduced its export quotas and caused pressure on prices. But exports picked up and prices started to fall again. The replacement of fluorescence lamps by LEDs condemned the profitability of their solution ”, explains Michel Latroche again.

There are few refiners in Europe

The more complex the technical process for recovering the metal, the more expensive it may be. And this cannot be reflected in the tariff. “In the end, we are all subject to the same market prices. You cannot sell your recycled metal more expensive ”, observes Serge Kimbel.

The economic equilibrium is therefore not easy to find. Public aid to these sectors therefore seems essential for them to develop, as a Senate report on the subject already underlined in 2016. An Urban Mines chair was created at Paris Tech in particular to support research on the valuation of Electrical and Electronic Waste. But, currently, only a handful of companies are able to purify the metal in Europe like WEEEcycling does. There are three major refiners on the continent: Boliden in Sweden, Aurubis in Germany and Umicore in Belgium. They are all also … mining producers.

A platinum mine in Marikana in 2019 in South Africa. In 2012, 34 workers were killed by police during a strike.

Concentration of metals decreases

Second obstacle, the concentration of metals tends to decrease in our devices, either under the effect of the manufacturers’ miniaturization efforts, or because the manufacturing techniques are optimized.
“For certain metals such as platinoids which are among the most profitable, we will find 30 grams per tonne. These are really small quantities ”, emphasizes Serge Kimbel. Sufficient metal must be harvested so that the yields are the highest possible and not generate losses.

To compensate for this lack, we will have to massify the collection of all electronic devices. It is also necessary to educate users about recycling because they still too often leave old smartphones to sleep in drawers. These are real unexploited deposits which are, in addition, carriers of toxicity if they are not treated. The file is moving forward, since operators are now required to systematize collection in their stores and that awareness campaigns will multiply.

Renew your smartphone less often

As consumers become more demanding on the source of materials, they may also be inclined tomorrow to pay more for a smartphone containing non-mining metals.

But is a smartphone made with fully recycled metals really possible? “The 100% non-mining will be difficult to achieve because there will always be traces not sourced. But one day we can imagine that 80% of the metals in a smartphone will come from non-mine production ”, begins to dream Serge Kimbel.

Remember, however, that the production of metals from recovered materials will not be enough to limit the impact of our smartphones on the planet. Quite simply because metals are not necessarily infinitely recyclable and this operation mobilizes energies that emit greenhouse gases, whether during transport or processing. The priority therefore remains to design more sustainable smartphones for manufacturers and keep them as long as possible for users.

Sources: Oeko, Coumpound Interest, Engineers Without Borders, theAdeme, the report of Senate, thehearing of Apple representatives in the Senate, Samsung

The different metals present in a smartphone.

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