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Samsung’s Failed Note 7 Phones Pose a Big Environmental Problem

Words by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Data & Technology
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By now nearly everyone knows the story of Samsung’s flagship smartphone, the Galaxy Note 7. The phone's batteries are known to overheat, and they have even caught fire in some instances -- causing Samsung to issue a recall of all Note 7 phones.

One less discussed aspect of this story is the environmental threat posed by the massive recall.  Samsung stated that it will dispose of the phones, but it's unclear how its disposal methods will impact the environment. “We have a process in place to safely dispose of the phones in accordance with all government regulations,” Samsung told TechRadar. But the phones “will not be repaired, refurbished, or resold ever again,” the company also told Motherboard.

Discarding millions of smartphones is a total waste. As Motherboard put it last week, the failure of the Note 7 “is an environmental tragedy, regardless of what Samsung decides will happen to the 2.5 million devices it manufactured.”

Smartphones are small devices, but they pack much in them. It takes about 165 pounds of raw materials to manufacture one cellphone and over 8 million gallons of water to produce one microchip, according to a 2013 report by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. So, Samsung’s failed Note 7 phones already generated a tremendous amount of waste that will not be recycled or recovered.

There is a chance that parts of the unused Note 7 phones will be recycled. But even if smartphones are recycled, not all of the materials used to make them can be recovered. Take rare earth minerals. Just one iPhone has eight different rare-earth metals, according to the American Chemical Society (ACS). But other types of smartphones may contain up to 16 of the 17 different rare-earth metals. Rare earth minerals are present in all electronic devices, and 99 percent of them can’t be recovered for recycling, iFixit states on its website.

Some of the rare earth metals used in smartphones include what are termed “conflict minerals.” Conflict minerals come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and finance the country’s conflict, which the Enough Project refers to as the “deadliest conflict globally since World War II.” One of such conflict minerals is cobalt, and over half of the world’s total supply comes from the DRC. The DRC government estimates that 20 percent of the cobalt it exports comes from artisanal miners in the southern part of the country. Those miners work by hand using “the most basic tools,” according to an Amnesty International report released earlier this year. Some of them are children.

The Amnesty International report found that Samsung couldn’t account for the exact origin of the cobalt it uses. Although the company doesn’t directly do business with companies that supply cobalt from the DRC, it doesn’t carry out supply chain diligence for cobalt. Samsung told the human rights organization that, because it is “very hard to trace the source of the mineral,” it is “impossible” for the company to determine if the cobalt in its supply chain is indeed a conflict mineral.

The Note 7 fiasco represents a chance for smartphone makers to learn more about recycling

Phones that are recovered and not sitting in a dresser drawer or in a landfill are usually refurbished. “Whether you donate to a charity, sell your phone online or in a retail store, or drop it off at a recycler, the first order of business for most is to refurbish the phones and sell them back on the thriving secondary market,” Jessica Dolcourt of CNET explained. The reason is that it is cheaper for a phone carrier to give you a refurbished phone if you lose or break your original one.

Even if phones are recycled, much content is lost: 20 to 35 percent of the material content is lost when it is “shredded and melted down for recycling,” according to iFixit.

However, there is something good that can came out of the Note 7 fiasco, for it provides smartphone makers with a chance to learn much more about recycling. Considering that a 2015 Pew report found that 64 percent of American adults own a smartphone, it’s something that these firms desperately need to learn.

Image credit: Samsung

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman