A smartphone contains around 60 raw materials. This includes cobalt and other, more rare earth elements. These raw materials are extracted in a few countries of origin. The difficult and hard work is sometimes life-threatening, and not only for the adults, but also for the numerous children who take part in the extraction.
Life without a smartphone? Very few people can imagine this scenario. As of 2020, around 3.5 billion people across the globe own such a device, and the trend is rising. In addition, we use smartphones on average for up to three hours a day – and not just for calling and chatting. We use it as a camera, listening to music, banking, shopping and the list goes on. For this reason and since the devices are now available almost everywhere, we no longer consider smartphones as luxury items.
What is the smartphone made of?
You can appreciate how luxurious a cell phone is, however, if you take it apart and look closer at what it actually consists of. It contains various individual parts such as the display, circuit board, battery, microphone and loudspeakers. Plastic, glass and ceramics make up most of the smartphone. The following metals are also used in a production of smartphone:
- Copper: Used for wires and printed circuit boards of smartphones. Main countries of origin: Chile, China, USA
- Aluminum: Used as a shielding plate to shield the electronics from the electromagnetic radiation coming from the antenna. Main countries of origin: Jamaica, China, Russia, Canada.
- Iron: Used for all screws. Main countries of origin: Brazil, China, Australia, India.
- Palladium: Used for the contact surfaces between individual components. Main countries of origin: Canada, South Africa, Russia.
- Silver: Used in the conductive tracks of the printed circuit board. Main countries of origin: Peru, Mexico, China, Australia.
- Gold: Used for the smartphone’s contacts on a SIM card and on the battery. Main countries of origin: China, South Africa, Australia, USA.
- Cobalt: Used for the battery. Main countries of origin: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, China.
- Tantalum: Used as a capacitor. Main countries of origin: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Australia, Brazil.
- Tin: Used as solder that connects the components of the smartphone to the copper layer of the board. Main countries of origin: China, Indonesia, Peru.
- Gallium: Used in LEDs (light-emitting diodes) as back lighting of the display or camera light. Main country of origin: Kazakhstan.
- Indium: Used for LCD displays. This is a very rare metal and it’s main countries of origin are China, Canada, Peru.
Rare earth elements
A single device contains seven materials that were classified as so-called “critical raw materials” or rare earth elements by the EU Commission in 2014 and are becoming increasingly scarce worldwide. Mobile phones contain additional rare metals, for example, neodymium and cerium. These are used in very small quantities in microphones or loudspeakers. The search for these materials is becoming increasingly complicated and dangerous.
More about the origin of elements on earth: What is the Big Bang? A Short Answer.
Where do materials used for smartphones come from?
The mining and extraction of the various raw materials takes place in mines in the respective countries of origin. Apart from the fact that the extraction of raw materials and the production of mobile phones are associated with a very high expenditure of resources and energy, there are also social consequences. International standards and human rights are repeatedly violated.
People in Bolivia and the Congo work in steep, self-made shafts that could theoretically collapse at any time. They do not wear protective masks or clothing. Protective masks are necessary, especially in the Congo cobalt mines. Amnesty International confirmed, inhaling cobalt dust can cause serious lung diseases. In addition, due to the fact that wages are too low, children have to work several hours a day and have to look for raw materials with their bare hands.
Does it always has to be a new smartphone?
Knowing what raw materials are in a smartphone and the conditions under which they are extracted, it almost sounds absurd when surveys show that only about 13 percent of people use their cell phones for more than two years. The bulk of the devices end up in the garbage or in the drawer at home. If you want to make a contribution, you can easily do something and use the smartphone until it is really no longer usable. Also, a new purchase is not always necessary: if it is simply a different model, it is worth taking a look at the used goods market.