What your phone contains
(Part 1)

Your mobile phone is a modern wonder of the technological age. Think back just 15 years and mobile phones were a rare thing indeed. Who would have thought in 1997 that we'd all be carrying around in our pockets what is essentially a mini computer that you could use to talk, text and tweet people.

However, each mobile phone needs many different components and materials to make them work, but have you ever wondered what materials make up the composition of your mobile phone? There are many reasons to recycle or reuse your old device. Many people focus on the negative environmental impact of electronic waste and the spotlight predominantly shines on the nasty stuff in your mobile.

However, there are many different valuable metals and other materials in your phone that we need to recover due to dwindling global supplies. If we are to keep creating these astonishing pieces of electronic equipment, we need to recover all the metals and materials we can from our old devices.

So, let's start with the bad boys; the real nasty chemicals in your phone. Please remember though, that in the normal course of your phones life, theses chemicals will not cause you harm. Even on its own, the phone when discarded into landfill does not pose much of a threat to the local environment. The problem comes when these devices number in their millions as small, short-life devices such as mobile phones generally do. As we say, your phone will not cause you any harm during the normal course of its life.

The nasty chemicals within the handset are restricted by UK law under the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) laws. These laws set in stone the amount and type of hazardous chemicals manufacturers are allowed to use in the manufacture of electronic devices. You can read more about RoHS in our article here. Remember, the levels in your mobile are safe, problems only arise when phones are discarded in their thousands.

So, let's open the curtain on the nasty chemicals; without further ado and in no particular order:

Cadmium is used predominantly in batteries that power your mobile. Although it is a naturally occurring metal, Cadmium is made mainly as a by-product of smelting zinc and lead. Cadmium is a known carcinogenic which means it is has a strong chance of causing cancer. Cadmium will also come from cigarette smoke and long-term exposure can lead to kidney, lung and bone problems.

Palladium is used widely in many electronic devices in the form of capacitors and is widely used in catalytic converters. Palladium is a rare earth-metal and getting rarer. We need to recover all of this precious metal as much as we can. Whilst not terribly toxic, it can cause some people severe skin reactions and respiratory tract problems.

One of the most toxic chemicals we know, Beryllium is used in tiny amounts (less than 0.1g) in your mobile phone, typically as an alloy in the electrical contacts. Your phone will typically contain around 3mg of Beryllium. Beryllium is classed as a category 1 carcinogen, meaning there is a strong link between this element and cancer.

Lead's infamy needs no introduction. Most newer phones will not contain lead solder, but older phones (the type you will have lying around in a drawer at home) will contain tin-lead solder. Lead can also be found in much older batteries.

Arsenic is one of Earth's most widely-known poisons and most commonly associated with being one of the nastiest chemicals in cigarettes. Don't worry though, your phone will contain less than 1mg of Arsenic. This chemical is used for creating semi-conductors which are essential components of modern electronic devices.

Whilst not particularly harmful to humans or the environment, Tantalum is on the naughty list due to where it is mined. Coltan, the mineral from which Tantalum is extracted is primarily mined in the Republic of Congo and has been linked to conflict here by smugglers trading for weapons. This metal is found in many modern electrical devices as capacitors and high powered resistors.

So there you have it, we've outlined some of the more unsavoury aspects of your phone. With this knowledge we hope to have prodded you in the direction of recycling your old handset. Even if it has no monetary value, most recyclers will send you a freepost bag to send them your old brick. It won't cost any money and you can help keep our planet a cleaner and nicer place to be.

In part 2, here, we have a look at the valuable metals that your phone contains.

In the meantime, take a look at our breakdown chart below. The percentages are not exact and vary depending on make and model of phone and the type of battery the manufacturer has used to provide power to your device (Nickel quantities will vary greatly for example). Therefore, numbers are roughly approximate, but should give you a very good idea of exactly what your phone is made up of.

To find out even more information about what chemicals your phone contains, try this article from healthystuff.org here

Originally published 07.01.12.
Reposted 08.04.14