- Victoria Gill
- Science Correspondent, BBC News
There is an urgent need to accelerate the recycling of e-waste, scientists say, as mining precious metals for making new gadgets is unsustainable.
According to a study, the mountain of electronic devices discarded in the world would weigh 57 million tons in the year 2021 alone.
The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) believes that there now needs to be a global effort to mine this waste, rather than mining the Earth.
Global conflicts also pose a threat to precious metals supply chains.
The RSC is leading a campaign to draw attention to the unsustainability of the continued extraction of all precious elements used in consumer technologies.
The organization points out that geopolitical unrest, including the war in Ukraine, has caused huge spikes in the price of materials like nickel, a key component of electric vehicle batteries.
This volatility in the element market is causing “chaos in the supply chains” that enable the production of electronics. Combined with the surge in demand, this has caused the price of lithium – another important element of battery technology – to increase by almost 500% between 2021 and 2022.
Some key components are simply running out.
“Our habits of consuming technology are by no means sustainable and risk depleting the raw materials we need,” said Professor Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, adding that these habits “continue to exacerbate environmental damage”.
Elements present in smartphones that could run out in the next century:
- Gallium: Used in medical thermometers, LEDs, solar panels, telescopes and has possible anti-cancer properties.
- Arsenic: Used in fireworks and as a wood preservative.
- Silver: Used in mirrors, reactive lenses that darken in sunlight, antibacterial clothing and gloves for touch screens.
- Indium: Used in transistors, microchips, fire extinguishing systems, the coating of ball bearings in Formula 1 cars and solar panels.
- Yttrium: Used in white LED lamps, camera lenses and can be used to treat certain cancers.
- Tantalum: Used in surgical implants, electrodes for neon lights, turbine blades, rocket nozzles and supersonic aircraft noses, hearing aids and pacemakers.
Smartphones contain about 30 different elements, some of which are running out on Earth.
At the same time, the amount of e-waste generated is increasing by about two million tons every year. Less than 20% is collected and recycled.
“We need governments to revamp recycling infrastructure and tech companies to invest in more sustainable manufacturing,” Professor Welton said.
New research by the SRC has also revealed growing consumer demand for more sustainable technologies. In an online survey of 10,000 people in 10 countries, 60% of respondents said they would be more likely to choose a competitor to their favorite tech brand if they knew the product was made from sustainable way.
The survey also showed that people did not know how to deal with their own e-waste. Many respondents said they were worried about the effect on the environment of unused appliances they have in their homes but were unsure what to do with them or worried about the safety of recycling systems.
Elizabeth Ratcliffe, from the Royal Society of Chemistry, told BBC Radio 4’s ‘Inside Science’ program that many of us are ‘unwittingly storing precious metals in our homes’, in old phones and computers out of order. ‘use.
“Manufacturers and retailers need to take more responsibility,” Ms Ratcliffe said. Manufacturers and retailers need to take more responsibility,” Ms Ratcliffe said. “Like take-back programs, which allow people to return their electronics to a retailer and be assured they will be safely recycled.
“All this volatility in supply chains only reinforces the fact that we need a circular economy for these materials. Right now, we are just constantly extracting them from the ground.”
The company hopes to encourage people to take old and unwanted devices to recycling centers, rather than stashing them in drawers and forgetting about them. It points UK consumers to online resources where they can find the nearest center that is committed to safely recycling computers, phones and other devices.
“What we always say is reduce, reuse and recycle. That way it’s possible to keep a phone longer and sell an old phone or give it to a loved one,” Ms Ratcliffe says. “It’s going to take everyone working together to scale those processes and get the infrastructure in place, so we can all recycle our devices.”
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