Why do we have cell phones

What does my cell phone have to do with the rainforest?

Have you ever asked yourself this question? It's not as strange as it sounds. If we think about where all the individual parts of a smartphone come from, the search for clues leads us very quickly into the rainforests of the earth.

Most important facts
  • How many new smartphones are sold in Germany each year?
  • What raw materials are in a cell phone?
  • Where do the most important metals in smartphones come from?
  • Where can you find coltan?

Good to know

Not all raw materials in mobile phones come from the tropical countries - but it is there that nature is often destroyed for their mining and people suffer from horrific working conditions.

Don't worry, we don't want to spoil your cell phone. But it is good to know how its “ingredients” are obtained, how valuable they are and what to look out for.

Life without a smartphone?

Unthinkable for most of us. In Germany, 8 out of 10 people aged 14 and over have a mobile phone. And a great many buy a new one every 18 months.
In Germany, 24 million new smartphones are sold every year. This amount of new equipment requires 720 kilograms of gold, 264 kilograms of palladium, 7.3 tons of silver, 396 tons of copper and 1531 tons of plastic.
But what does the production of a single smartphone actually mean? for the environment - and for the rainforests and their inhabitants?

A universal device of a special kind

A mobile phone consists of different parts. For example battery,
Housing, display, circuit board, camera, loudspeaker. From the outside you can only see plastic, glass and some metal. In fact, more than 60 different substances from all over the world are processed for a smartphone, for example oil shale in the housing, rock crystals in the glass for the displays and sound in the insulators.

Raw materials in the mobile phone - that's what it contains:

A quarter of the raw materials are metals, a total of around 30 different ones. The most important are:

  • Copper (15%)
  • Aluminum (3%)
  • Nickel (2%)
  • Tin (2%)
  • Others (1%)

The other metals include: Iron, gold, silver, platinum, palladium, cobalt, tantalum / coltan, tungsten, indium and so-called rare earths.

Metals in the cell phone -
precious and problematic at the same time

Metals in particular are valuable and sometimes rare raw materials that have to be laboriously extracted. Often in countries where human rights and nature conservation do not apply much. Some also speak of “conflict materials”. This includes natural resources, raw materials and other goods that are extracted illegally and outside of government control. And in which conflicts are fought with weapons. Many of them are located in tropical rainforests that are cut down for raw material extraction.
A particularly problematic country is the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the heart of Africa. A bloody civil war has been financed there with cobalt and coltan for many years.

Where do the most important raw materials come from?

IRON

is extracted from the iron ores magnetite, siderite and hematite and processed into steel - for the screws in mobile phones.

Iron ore comes mainly from China, Australia, Brazil and India.

Problem: One of the largest iron ore deposits in the world is located in the Brazilian Amazon, partly also in the area of ​​the indigenous people. Rainforests are being destroyed for the extraction and people are losing their livelihood.
On January 25, 2019, one of the greatest disasters in Brazilian mining history occurred: the dam of an iron ore mine collapsed, a huge, toxic mudslide rolled into the valley and buried people, animals and houses. Probably 270 people died, nature has been poisoned and destroyed for years.
The German TÜV Süd had classified the dam as safe - those responsible are now (2020) on trial.

ALUMINUM

is a light metal and is in the display, in the housing and in a sheet metal inside the device to shield the electronics from electromagnetic waves.
Aluminum is extracted from the mineral bauxite, especially in Australia, China, Guinea / West Africa, and Brazil.

Problem: In opencast mining, e.g. in Guinea, the rainforests are turned into red deserts. The workers put sticks of dynamite into deeply drilled holes. The ground explodes, leaving mountains of bauxite lumps. In addition, the production of aluminum is extremely energy consuming.

TIN

is obtained from layers of earth, deposits in rivers and from the sea floor.
Tin is needed to solder the components in the cell phone.
Most of this raw material comes from Indonesia. Other countries: Peru, China, Brazil, Myanmar.

Problem: Rainforests and coral reefs are being destroyed on the Indonesian island of Bangka. The tin-containing earth is pumped up with water hoses from deep pits or from the seabed and washed until only the noble black metal remains. Tin mining is extremely dangerous as the mines are often not adequately secured and slide off. Again and again the workers are buried alive by landslides. Children also have to help.

TANTAL

is a metal that is used to store energy. It is in the micro-capacitor, which ensures that the cell phone battery is quickly recharged. Tantalum is obtained from the mineral ore coltan. The name "Coltan" is derived from the mineral group columbite-tantalite.

Coltan comes mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also from Rwanda, Nigeria, China and Brazil.

Problem:Coltan is one of the biggest conflict substances in the cell phone. Because it is mainly promoted in Eastern Congo, where a cruel civil war has been raging for years: rebels occupy the mines and make huge profits from the sale. They use it to buy new weapons and threaten the population. The workers dig deeper and deeper into the earth with shovels to get at the ore. They are poorly paid, although the hardship is life-threatening; the pits are sometimes up to 100 meters deep. Children have to work too. The rainforests, the habitat of the endangered mountain and lowland gorillas, are destroyed for the mining of coltan.

COBALT

is contained in every cell phone battery together with lithium (obtained from the mineral lepidolite). But not only there: without cobalt, no rechargeable ion battery will work, whether in a mobile phone, laptop, tablet or e-car.
The largest mine in the world is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - More than 60 percent of the cobalt extracted worldwide comes from this African country. Other countries are Zambia and China.

Problem: Here the workers in often completely unsecured mines put their lives at risk. Children work up to twelve hours a day in the affected mines and carry heavy loads through narrow tunnels dug by human hands. In smaller mines in particular, people work with bare hands or only with very primitive tools, as Amnesty International found out in an interview with some child laborers. Fatal accidents and spills occur time and again in the tunnels.

GOLD

conducts well and is therefore applied to the contact surfaces of the SIM card or the battery. The 10 largest producing countries include China, Australia, Indonesia, Peru and Ghana.
Problem: Gold extraction is extremely destructive: To get 0.034 grams of gold, 100 kilos of rock have to be moved. The gold is dissolved out with mercury and cyanide. In order to mine gold, the rainforests are being destroyed and people are being displaced and their drinking water contaminated by the chemicals.

Processing:
Raw materials on a world tour

After mining, the raw materials are processed, often in another country.
The copper extracted from Chile is used for example Further processing transported to Chinawhere most of a cell phone's components are made. But manufacturers also have their smartphones produced in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Taiwan and Indonesia. The devices are often built in another country, such as Malaysia.

Some smartphones have to be put together by hand. In factories in Asia, workers toil from morning to evening - mostly for very little money.
After final assembly, the devices are often transported by container ship to European ports and from there by truck to the dealers.

It's a journey with heavy luggage

Strange but true: In the course of its life, a mobile phone consumes a total of around 75.3 kilos of resources - while it weighs only about 80 grams itself. This is what the experts at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy found out. You call this consumption an ecological backpack.
The mining of the raw materials devours the largest part: 35.3 kilos. In addition, further processing, transport, use and disposal cost a lot of energy and water.

Recycling -
still a big construction site

We see: Every smartphone is a valuable asset and not a waste, even if it doesn't work anymore. It is therefore important that old or defective devices are consistently collected and carefully recycled. But we are still miles away from that:

Not even half of all disused electrical and electronic equipment is properly collected and recycled. In Germany it is currently 45.08 percent. Since 2019 it should have been 65 percent - that was decided by the European Union (EU).

Precious raw materials are lost

Instead, 40 million tons of electrical appliances end up on the trash every year. This was reported by the UN in 2017. In Germany there are 600,000 tons, On average, each of us produces 22 kilos of electronic waste a year. This also includes smartphones that you could actually still use. Because often only the battery would have to be replaced or they would have to be repaired. But that is usually difficult and hardly cheaper than a new device. That means: The valuable metals such as copper, gold or silver or rare earths are lost.

Electronic waste -
our toxic waste ends up in Africa

Electronic waste is a huge problem because some substances in the devices are poisonous: batteries, cables or circuit boards must be stored specially and must not be burned.

Thousands of tons of disused devices end up in wild rubbish dumps in Africa or Asia every year - illegally. Because it is forbidden in Europe to export electronic waste to other countries. But that is hardly controlled. And so countries like Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa or India are becoming junkyards for our toxic waste. As if these countries didn't already have enough to do with their own electronic waste: Without any protection, people dismantle old devices in order to get to the raw materials. And it is always the poorest families, including children, who toil in the garbage dumps. In order to remove the valuable metals, the devices are sometimes set on fire. Poison gets into the environment. Some of the worst landfills are on the outskirts of Ghana's capital, Accra, where the air and soil are contaminated by the pollutants and toxic fumes that make people sick. The collected metal is then sold to middlemen.

Proper recycling -
how does it work?

With regular disposal, cell phones are dismantled into their individual parts:
Displays are dismantled because glass and liquid crystals can be reused. Batteries are disposed of as old batteries. Individual components can also be recycled, for example nickel, lead, cadmium, mercury, silver, iron and copper. The rest of the device is shredded. Metals are specifically separated out, for example by magnets. In specialized recycling companies, lead, nickel, gold, bismuth, tin, antimony or indium can also be extracted from small components (source: Federal Environment Ministry).

This has to happen so that we save raw materials and preserve rainforests:

  1. In politics:

  • Companies should be required to no raw materials from crisis and war zones to use and exclude child labor in the entire production chain.
  • Manufacturers should indicate what raw materials stuck in the device and where they come from.
  • The purchase of used cell phones should be encouraged.
  • The Greens are calling for one Compulsory deposit of 25 euros for each device purchased. Then more consumers would bring their old devices back to the retailer instead of hoarding them in the drawer.
  • The Right to repair decide: Every mobile phone must be built in such a way that it can be repaired and that spare parts and instructions are also available.
  • The software manufacturers must be obliged Enable updatesas long as the smartphone works. But at least for 7 years.
  • Manufacturers must specify how long a smartphone “lives”, i.e. how long it can be used. For this time must also Spare parts can be boughtat a reasonable price.
  1. With the manufacturers

    What is demanded by politics above all relates to the rethinking of the manufacturers. You can of course also act voluntarily.
  1. At the dealers:

    Dealers have to take back used equipment, including online dealers. They have been obliged to do this since July 2016. But it is important that you make your customers aware of this.

Any of us can do that:

  • Buy a smartphone that you repair it yourself and replace the battery. Or that you can bring for repairs.
  • Use your mobile phone as long as possible. After all, you have a valuable device - no matter how old it is. A mobile phone has a long lifespan.
  • If your smartphone is broken, leave it repair.
  • If you want a new one, give away or sell the old one to people who cannot or do not want to buy a new one that often. You are doing a lot to protect the rainforests and their inhabitants.
  • Or return the broken or disused cell phone to the dealer or take it to a recognized collection point for recycling.
    In this way you help ensure that valuable raw materials are not lost. Unfortunately, there are an estimated 206 million old cell phones lying around unused in German drawers (according to the industry association Bitkom for 2020). In doing so, they could be reused in a meaningful way.
  • Organized Collection campaigns in school and dealt with the subject in class. And tell us about it!
  • With your broken cell phone you can also save the threatened gorillas in the Virunga National Park in Africa. Under the motto “A cell phone for the gorilla”, Frankfurt Zoo is collecting money for the protection of the great apes. They live in the area where coltan is also mined for smartphones. The zoo receives money from its recycling partner for every cell phone. Information at http://www.zoo-frankfurt.de/helfen/handy-sammelaktion/

Just send your collected cell phones to us! Our address:
Rainforest adventure
Hölderlinstrasse 22a
22607 Hamburg

 


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Last updated: April 22, 2021