Environmental Impact of Cellphone Minerals
By Ashlynn Principe
2019-2020 I2F Cohort Member
Former Intern in Family Programs at National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)
B.A. in International Studies with a minor in Spanish, University of Mississippi ’19
Ashlynn Principe carried out Fellowship research in collaboration with museum staff to develop interactive elements for an upcoming cellphone exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. You can read about some of her research findings in the blog post below.
Cellphones have become an integral part of our daily lives with over 5 billion people across the globe owning one according to a 2019 study from the PEW Research Center. Technological advances in cellphones laid the world at our fingertips, bringing with it the benefits of fast-paced communication, quick entertainment, and overall convenience. Mobile phones no longer signified simply being able to send text messages and make telephone calls on the go without need of a landline connection. The possibilities of use were suddenly endless and so, too, were the ways in which people could connect. With these handheld game changers, society was revolutionized. Yet, despite the interconnectivity cultivated in the virtual world, the disconnect between us and the natural world that makes the technological feats of our spectacular devices possible has become increasingly more evident. The unseen connections between us and our phones–specifically the minerals, raw materials, and global networks crucial to producing them–are making, perhaps, an even larger impact on the world.
Cellphones are created from rare minerals and materials in the earth-nonrenewable resources that human demand is rapidly depleting from the earth in actions contributing to the environmental crisis. Socially, there is some understanding of cellphone production, use, and disposal, however, general knowledge of what is in our phones – what they are made of, how they are created, where the material comes from, how much of those resources are left, how they are eventually disposed of when the technology gets too outdated or the phone breaks – is widely unknown.
Here are some examples of the main elements of smartphones, the minerals used and their environmental impacts:
- Battery: The lithium used in our phone’s rechargeable batteries is primarily pulled from salt mines in South America at the expense of the water and food supplies of the communities there.
- Circuitry: Four well-known conflict minerals, known as 3TG (tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold), are all used to make a phone’s circuit board. The mining practices used to extract these minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo leave workers subject to poor working conditions, child labor, low pay, and violence.
- Display and Speakers: Rare Earth Elements like Indium, Europium, and Neodymium have a variety of functions from conducting the electricity in your touchscreens, providing color in the display, or making speaker magnets. Extracting these REE’s, over 90% of which are mined from China, is difficult and has resulted in extensive water and soil pollution.
Production practices used to create our prized possessions are unsustainable, but you can’t just give up your cellphone, as we mentioned – they changed the game and have become a staple in our everyday lives. So if we can’t live with the human and environmental cost of cellphone production and we can’t live without our cellphones, then our only option is to take action.
I2F Internships received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.