Lost in the hype about Samsung permanently pulling the plug on its exploding phone is this: The failure of the Galaxy Note 7 is an environmental tragedy, regardless of what Samsung decides will happen to the 2.5 million devices it manufactured.
Early Tuesday morning, Samsung announced it has permanently discontinued and stopped promoting the Galaxy Note 7, and has asked its customers to return their devices for a refund or exchange. A Samsung spokesperson told me the phones will not be repaired, refurbished, or resold ever again: “We have a process in place to safely dispose of the phones,” the company said.
This sounds reasonable, but the fact is that besides sitting in your nightstand drawer for eternity (a fate that will surely befall some of these phones) or being thrown into a garbage dump or chucked into the bottom of a river, being recycled is the worst thing that can happen to a smartphone.
"Smartphones are not really recycled."
There are two main things to consider here: First, though smartphones weigh less than a pound, it was estimated in 2013 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimated that it takes roughly 165 pounds of raw mined materials to make the average cell phone, a number that is certainly higher for the Note 7, being both one of the largest and most advanced smartphones phones ever created. Second, much of that mined material is going to be immediately lost.
This is because we are terrible at recycling smartphones—of the 50-or-so elements that are in a Galaxy Note 7, we can only recover about a dozen of them through recycling. Lost are most of the rare earth elements, which are generally the most environmentally destructive and human labor-intensive to mine.
Benjamin Sprecher, a postdoc studying extraction of rare earth metals in recycling at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told me in an email that “smartphones are not really recycled (the rare earth elements, anyway), so you’d lose almost all the interesting stuff in those smartphones.”
Alex King, the director of the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute at the Ames Laboratory, told me that “recycling smartphones is in its infancy.”
Lost in the recycling process are “things like indium (used in touchscreens), rare earths like neodymium in the magnets in the speaker and microphone. Cobalt in the battery from the Congo,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, told me. (Samsung recently told the Washington Post its supply chain uses Congolese cobalt, but said it takes steps to ensure it’s not mined by mistreated or child laborers .)
“These are all very expensive in terms of the environmental impact, but also in the lives they impact to mine them," Wiens continued. "Having to say without any of them having been used at all that they have to go straight to the recycler is really sad.”
This is from Samsung's 2016 sustainability report. It doesn't show the Note 7, however it's safe to assume that a huge percentage of the phone's environmental impact comes from the mining stage of its development. Image: Samsung
This loss of material is why smartphones are not usually recycled even several years into their lifespans—they are refurbished and resold to cell phone insurance companies and customers in developing markets. This is because the recoverable elements within any given smartphone are only worth a couple bucks; it is far more environmentally sustainable and more profitable to extend the life of a smartphone than it is to disassemble it and turn it into something else.
There is a potential silver lining here: Just as oil spills give scientists an opportunity to try out new cleanup techniques, a large-scale smartphone recall may allow us to learn more about how to recycle smartphones.
“End-of-life phones travel long distances and trickle in over a long period of time, making it hard to keep the collection costs down and reap any kind of benefit in the processing from economies of scale,” King said. “Paradoxically, recycling a whole generation of phones all at once may actually help us to overcome those barriers.”