La miniera in uno smartphone

A new life for smartphones

What have old smartphones to do with Olympic medals?

by Andrea Daniele Signorelli
11 March 2019
7 min read
by Andrea Daniele Signorelli
11 March 2019
7 min read

What is the meaning of an Olympic medal? The sacrifices athletes make, the dawn alarm calls, the constant training, the victories, the defeats, and the ambition. All of these are inherent parts of it. But at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the medals hanging around the champions’ necks will be made of something more: the desire to reduce the massive environmental impact that electronic waste is wreaking on our planet.
The gold, silver, and bronze that the 5,000 Olympic medals are made from will come from millions of old smartphones, computers and other devices, all of them donated by Japanese citizens in a bid to give a second life to gadgets that are thrown away every day or left for years in some drawer. Electronic waste may be one of the most damaging types from an ecological point of view, but it’s also an unexploited goldmine for extracting precious metals and more besides.
In less than two years, the Japanese have donated 47,500 tonnes of electronic waste, including 5 million smartphones. From these, it has so far been possible to extract 28.4kg of gold (out of the 30.3kg needed for the medals), 3,500kg of silver (out of 4,100kg) and 2,700kg of bronze (the full amount needed).

A goldmine in your smartphone

So just how much precious metal gets wasted when you stop using a smartphone? According to the UN’s estimates, something like 320 tonnes of gold and 7,200 tonnes of silver were thrown away in 2018, worth a combined total of 20 billion euros. We’re not talking about symbolic figures here; it’s a real goldmine that could be exploited to create a circular economy. According to a study by Beijing and Sydney Universities, one tonne of electronic waste can contain 350g of gold. Compare that with the 5-6g extracted from a tonne of mined raw material, to say nothing of the lower environmental impact of waste treatment compared with extraction.
Small wonder, given that every individual smartphone contains around 0.034g of gold, 0.34g of silver and 0.015g of palladium, as well as 25g of aluminium and 15g of copper. And that’s just to start with. Smartphones contain a range of materials that are common in the Earth’s crust but difficult to extract, like yttrium, lanthanum, terbium and neodymium. Given that 1.5 billion smartphones will be sold in 2019 (most of which will have a lifecycle of just one or two years), it’s clear what a positive environmental and economic impact we could make with a correct reuse or recycle of our devices.
This is also why new small businesses are cropping up in the field of smartphone and computer recycling. Among them, the leading ones are without doubt those creating jewellery from electronic waste – a market that’s already reached a value of 2 billion euros and will hit 3.6 billion euros in 2023, according to the Financial Times. British designer Eliza Walter is one of the pioneers in this small new industry. Through her brand Lylie’s, she’s creating beads collections using gold and silver recycled exclusively from electronic devices.
She’s not the only one working in this sector, though. In the United States, New York artist Amanda Preske also uses processors to decorate necklaces, bracelets, rings and so on. And in Los Angeles, Nikki Reed has worked with the IT giant Dell to create a series of 14 creative designs using electronic waste, all as part of a larger Dell initiative to recycle used gadgets in 83 countries around the world in 2008.
‘Extracting metals from electronic waste, and even producing gold and copper bars, promises to be a very profitable business,’ Veena Sahajwalla, professor at the University of New South Wales, has explained to the BBC. In her laboratory, Sahajwalla has created an ‘urban goldmine’ where all the parts from smartphones, computers and TVs get taken apart and reused. It takes a big investment to build a laboratory like this, around €300,000. ‘But this can be got back in two or three years and then it really will be viable,’ the professor explains.

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The buildup of electronic rubbish

All these projects are just the first step in tackling an already very serious problem – and it’s not just about wasting gold and silver. According to UN figures again, every European citizen produces 15kg of electronic waste a year on average (smartphones, tablets, computers, TVs and all the other household electronics). At a global level, the total is now 50 tonnes a year. These figures are only going to increase more, because of how often we change our smartphones, tablets, computers and smartwatches, not to mention the upcoming explosion Internet-of-Things gadgets, which will number 75 billion by 2025, according to estimates.
Of course, all these devices, made up of batteries, chips, sensors, cables and screens, can’t just be thrown in the bin at home. They need to be processed at the right waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) centres. Unfortunately, only 10% of smartphones are disposed of properly. Most stay in cupboards or even end up in landfills.
However, every time you don’t follow the right process, you are you contributing to making the situation worse in hellholes like Agbogbloshie (Ghana the biggest landfill in the world. Almost 70,000 people work here, under a shroud of dioxin and in constant contact with toxic substances. Properly dismantling, throwing away and recycling devices made of glass and plastic, as well as highly toxic substances like cadmium and lead, is therefore of the utmost importance.

How to give a smartphone a second life

In our own small way, though, each of us can do something to stop electronic waste becoming even more of an emergency for the environment. Besides throwing smartphones away properly (and replacing them less), you can also give them a new life. For example, an app like Anymote Smart, which comes with a small infrared device, lets you turn your smartphone into a universal remote to control the TV, air conditioning, stereo and other items.

If you’d rather have a small surveillance camera, then you can save a lot of money (and avoid adding another device to your collection) by using your old smartphone as one. Just download the app Alfred (for Android and iOS) and you’ll have a camera you can put anywhere, whether for keeping an eye on babies when you’re in another room or seeing what the dog gets up to when you’re not at home.

But the most interesting way to reuse your smartphone rather than throwing it away is to donate its processing power to science. You can do this thanks to Boinc at the University of California in Berkeley, which will add any wifi-connected smartphone to its network through a special application), and then use it for research in medicine, physics, maths, and other areas.

The scientific world needs exponentially increasing computing power. Given that all the smartphones in the world combined have more than 100 times the power of a supercomputer, it’s clear how valuable the processor from an unused iPhone is. Your old smartphone could be put to work, completely independently, for whichever of Boinc’s projects most interests you. Much better than seeing it end up in a landfill!

The author: Andrea Daniele Signorelli

Freelance journalist, writes about New Technologies, Politics and Society.