With Apple’s new release of iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus, we can be sure of many things, one of them being that we are about to have a lot of old iPhones to dispose. We use our phones everyday, and sometimes are unhealthily attached to them. We are surrounded by, and interact with, hundreds of types of technologies. Yet, when was the last time you thought of, or wanted to understand how, and with what, your phone was made?
This might come as a surprise to some of you, but our appetite for new devices is not sustainable, for the time being that is. Most, if not all, of our technologies today contain what are called “rare earth elements.” As the name suggests, rare earth elements are currently in a fixed and strict supply. The largest source is found in China, with more than 95% of the supply, and China is becoming less and less happy to share the stock, and of course, is increasing the prices; price increase is also affected by the internal, illegal mining of its rare earths – which is a fascinating topic on its own.
Surprisingly, rare earth elements do not get their name from the quantity of the supply, but rather mean “strange” or “unusual”, while “earth” signifies any material that is combined with oxygen. They can be found at the bottom of the periodic table, and are the lanthanides; from lanthanum to lutetium, including yttrium and scandium, are all rare earth elements.
Mining them is not easy, and often comes with an environmental cost. The biggest mine in United States, Mountain Pass, was shut down in 2002 due to environmental violations; radioactive waste was leaking into the groundwater supply. It has reopened since 2013 with ‘sustainability in mind’, but has faced multiple problems since then, which has questioned its competitiveness and long-term success.
While rare earth mining and supply place our technological addiction at risk, some companies have embraced an alternative. Of course, the alternative is more of an addition or complementary aid to mining, but there may be a potential as it requires less effort and is much safer. This mining occurs in our old cell phones. Every phone only contains up to a few grams of rare earths, however, when considered the number of unused, old, and retired phones, which reaches more than 500 million, we are no longer talking about just a few grams. Recycling thus proves to be a gold mine, and literally speaking at that, since our phones also contain, gold, platinum, copper, and palladium.
While rare earth elements are essential for our technological developments yet are limited, alternatives to rare earths have not proven successful. Due to their unique luminescent, electrochemical, and magnetic characteristics, rare earths reduce technologies’ weight, emissions, and energy intake. Rare earth elements make our phones more durable, powerful, efficient, stable, and faster. They are also almost everywhere: in the displays, speakers, headphones, and motors.
While there may seem like there is not much we can do, but keep mining till the supply runs out, or hope that Elon Musk starts looking into mining the moon, we can be aware of the situation, take our gadgets to be recycled, and demand a more sustainable use of resources.