How many mobile phones do you own? According to the Director of the National Metals Technology Centre, Andrew McLelland, by the end of this year there will be as many mobiles in existance as there are people – technically one each, but of course it doesn’t work out quite like that.
If you do have a spare one or two lying around, you might have had a go at taking it apart – harder than it looks, according to Andrew, who did just that for the benefit of the UK’s science media this morning at the British Science Festival.
Inside, mobiles are more than just plastic and circuitry – they’re full of many kinds of metals, including what are known as rare earth elements (REEs). Whilst not actually that rare in terms of their abundance in the Earth’s crust, the REE come almost exclusively from China, and their supply is far from guarenteed – geopolitics, resource nationalism and other social factors, combined with rapidly increasing demand, put them near the top of the British Geological Survey’s newly published ‘risk list’ of metals. The list was published to coincide with the festival event, ‘Metals, Mines and Mobiles’, exploring the life cycle of metals which are central to modern technology.
Technology metals like lithium, indium, niobium and the REEs are vital for producing mobile phone touch screens, batteries, microphones, speakers and all kinds of other componants. They’re also integral to the development of green technology, not to mention medical equipment, catalysts, cutting tools and countless others.
Less than 1% of technology metals are currently recycled. Not surprising, when there is less than two pence worth of them in a mobile phone. But with over 9 billion mobiles having been made since their creation, and 1.5 billion in 2010 alone, is it worth trying to recycle them more?
What do you think? How many mobiles do you have lurking in drawers and cupboards, and why do you think they are so rarely recycled?
To view the BGS Risk List, visit www.bgs.ac.uk