Samsung is working to make the best of last year’s Note 7 crisis. It has been selling the Note FE, which was made using the unused parts of the Galaxy Note 7 handsets that were never sold. The company will make full use of the 2.5 million recalled Note 7 handsets as well. Samsung will recover rare metals from the devices, announcing in a press release on its South Korean website on Tuesday, that it is expected to recover about 157 tons of gold, silver, cobalt and copper by breaking down Note 7 handsets.
It will also separate and reuse components such as OLED displays, memory boards and camera modules including selling service materials and remaining parts. While Samsung might have outlined its policy of the eco-friendly disposal of the Note 7, its recovery of such a large amount of rare metals raises the question — why do smartphones have them?
Metal usage in smartphones
Generally, about 40 percent of a smartphone is made up of metal. In fact, a smartphone contains at least 70 elements out of the 83 stable and non-radioactive elements in the periodic table. A typical smartphone such as an Apple iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy S8 has about 0.034 grams of gold, 0.034 grams of silver, 0.015 grams of palladium and about 0.001 grams of platinum. Smartphones with a metallic build such as the Note 7 have about 25 grams of aluminum on average.
All these metals play different roles in the functioning of a smartphone — neodymium, terbium and dysprosium, for example, are three rare metals that are used in providing phones the power to vibrate. The latter two are also used to provide colors to a touchscreen display. When you see a commercial for a phone with a gorilla glass display, think about the precious metals used in making the glass harder.
Are these metals running out?
According to the Minerals Education Coalition, a baby born in the US today will use up 244 kilograms of zinc, 409 kilograms of lead and 446 kilograms of copper during his or her lifetime, not just in phones but in other gadgets and appliances as well.
Smartphones are actually causing an environmental drain of resources, because of their widespread usage, and additionally, new versions come out often and people purchase a new one every year. According to the BBC, around two billion smartphone users upgrade to a new one every 11 months, which means that their old smartphone remains unused, resold or thrown out.
According to a study conducted by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies in 2013, we might soon run out of some metals and would have to find substitutes.
"We all like our gadgets; we all like our smartphones. But in 20 or 30 years, will we still have access to all the elements necessary to provide the particular functions that make a smartphone so great? Based on our findings, it is unlikely that substitution alone can solve potential supply restrictions for any of the metals on the periodic table, " the study’s co-author Barbara Reck said at the time.
What are smartphones companies doing to solve the problem?
Smartphone companies have a good understanding of this issue, especially since their future depends on it. Many of these companies are actively recycling smartphones to recover these metals. While Samsung is actively recycling smartphones such as the Note 7, rival Apple is a step ahead. It has declared in its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report that it will make its iPhones only from recycled materials and is challenging itself to “one day end our reliance on mining altogether.”