Over a relatively short period of time, cell phones and other electronic devices have become common for most people worldwide. Cell phones may contain up to 60 elements, including precious metals gold and silver. Other elements used in cell phones include copper, tin, indium, tantalum, and nickel. The intriguing, longer list of elements may motivate you to pull up a version of the periodic table on your electronic device! The bottom line is that cell phones and other electronic devices contain many valuable metals, a reason to hold onto them as long as possible and to recycle/properly dispose of all electronic equipment.
The reality of this electronic age is that it is often difficult to utilize these devices long term, due in part to the continual upgrade of phones, computers, etc. The constant acquisition of electronic devices means that more metals must be mined from the earth, and the disposal of electronic waste, which is loaded with valuable metals, is perpetual. I was determined to keep my I-phone until it “died.” However, before the phone made it through year 5, I needed an app for work that was not compatible with the phone, and I had to purchase a newer one.
The needs and desires for electronic devices have established a purchase-discard cycle and, unfortunately, enormous amounts of electronic waste. According to the United Nations, the world generates an estimated 40 million tons of electronic waste annually, equivalent to the disposal of 800 computers each second. Much of the waste is shipped to Africa or Asia, and due to improper storage and processing of the waste, many poor communities suffer. Without suitable waste management and environmental regulations to protect citizens and other life forms, waste is problematic in a number of ways. For example, when the electronic waste is burned, a common method of disposal, the metals are left behind and often contaminate the water, soil, and air. The good news is that research groups are investigating ways to separate the tiny amounts of the various metals in electronic waste.
Most municipalities in the US have special waste collection sites or events for electronic waste disposal to reduce their presence in landfills. Since many of the materials that make up electronic equipment can be reused or recycled and have value, it is important to make the effort to dispose of them properly. In addition to reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills, when 1 million laptops are recycled, enough energy is saved to provide electricity to 3600 homes in the US, according to the US EPA. Once again, recognizing the value in materials is part of a circular economy, where resources are used repeatedly. It is also an important way to respect the gifts of nature and work toward a more sustainable world.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.