Eating the earth

Around 50 of the world’s 90 naturally occurring elements are used in over 25 billion electronic ‘connected things’.  That includes 6.4 billion smart phones and over 2 billion PCs.  All those device components require different materials to provide the required functionality. A typical smart phone or tablet uses over 30 different elements. A computer may use slightly less, but also has much more plastic and metallic materials incorporated into it.

To give a sense of the use of these elements:

  • the touch screen uses indium tin oxide (indium, tin and oxygen) to provide the transparent electrically conductive film on the aluminosilicate glass, which uses potassium ions to harden it and may contain tellurium to increase corrosion resistance. Rare earth elements such as lanthanum, praesodymium, europium, gadolinium, terbium and dysprosium are used to produce screen colours.
  • the chip on the main processor or logic board uses a combination of silicon, phosphorous, tin, arsenic, titanium, boron, antimony, tungsten, indium and gallium; and the battery includes lithium and cobalt or manganese, with a casing made of aluminium. Tantalum is used for the micro capacitors, used for filtering and frequency tuning. Nickel is used in the microphone, connections, and other components, and gallium arsenide in the amplifier.
  • specialised components often use rare earths: the vivid screen colours are enhanced by the lanthanides – terbium, ytterbium, gadolinium and europium – the magnets in the speakers use praesodymium, gadolinium and neodymium; the vibration mechanism uses terbium, dysprosium and neodymium and the camera uses praesodymium.
  • all the components are electrically connected using a mix of gold, silver, copper and bismuth, with tin and lead soldering.

Mining and extracting all these elements have a massive impact on the environment.  Although all the components in a single phone only weigh around 160 grams, to make them requires about 30 kg of ore to be mined from the earth.  That then needs to be processed to make the materials for the components creates around 85 kg of waste (much of it toxic). Rare earths not actually rare but are difficult (and expensive) to extract and purify.  Their extraction and processing create lots of toxic and radioactive waste. Yet barely 1% of rare earths are recycled.

All the above satellite and composite images are created from Google Earth Pro (Images ©2022 Maxar Technologies and ©2022 CNES / Airbus)


A recent study by Josh Lewpawsky (Europe Now, 2019) reinforces the issue that the real e-waste problem is created upstream, in manufacturing.  Whilst household e-waste has grown significantly in Europe to around 3.8 million tonnes per year (2016), it is dwarfed by the e-waste created in manufacturing which still runs at around 18.7 million tonnes, more than 4.8 times larger than WEEE arising from households. But even this masks the real problem as much of the early manufacture (of materials and components) does not occur in Europe and so is not included.

We remain blind to the wider damaging impact of our devices.

For more information on the materials (See RSC’s Precious Elements) and for their supply chain, see Materials Matter at the Restart Project.