The Dirty, Shameful Secrets Contained Within Your Smartphone

The Dirty, Shameful Secrets Contained Within Your Smartphone

Brussels, Belgium: Many of us spend our days glued to them, taking pictures, calling our loved ones, watching movies, reading articles and basically performing every daily task thanks to them. Them? Every electronic gadget that has become indispensable to our always more connected and globalized lives, including but not limited to smartphones, laptops, camera, GPS devices, TVs etc.

We trust them with some of our most private information; sometimes sleep with them under the pillow and feel upset when they’re lost or broken – but just how much do we really know about what’s inside our beloved electronic devices? What’s needed to make them feel lighter, better, faster? And have you ever considered what happens to them once they die and are discarded?

Here’s a peek behind the curtain of the very secret and dirty electronics industry…

Raw materials, mined resources

Copper, lithium, tin, silver, gold, nickel and aluminium are some of the most common raw materials used by the electronics industry and its production is one of the dirtiest in the world. Many of these resources are found in pristine natural areas such as Central Africa, South America and South East Asia. China, however, has some of the largest reserves of rare earth materials in the world. No matter the country, extracting those materials from the ground uses large amounts of energy and water while producing significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The extraction process, aka mining, also creates pollution which impacts the local environment and nearby communities. As outlined in this piece about sustainable jewellery, gold extraction, for instance, requires mercury and cyanide that are then discarded with the rest of the rock and soil causing large-scale pollution in surrounding water streams that also flow downstream affecting distant communities and environments.

Child sorts through the electronic rubbish in Africa. Credit- Fairphone
Child sorts through the electronic rubbish in Africa. Credit: Fairphone

In Baotou, a city in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of northern China, lies one of the largest sources of 17 of the most sought-after minerals in the world (hence, rare earths) and is the biggest in China. The precious raw materials found here are used in pretty much every electronic technology produced, such as smartphones, electric cars, TVs and GPS devices. To process these precious earths, however, requires toxic chemicals, acid baths and radioactive elements. Cerium, for instance, requires minerals to be crushed and dissolved in sulphuric and nitric acid which is then, along with the rest of the toxic chemicals, used to extract and purify the wanted elements is subsequently discarded in a nearby lake. The area has seen mass livestock deaths, once rich and productive fields now replaced with empty drylands and residents struck with sudden illness when they drink the water.

But significant environmental impacts are not the only issue linked to the mining of these high profile raw materials. Exploitation and child labor are just some of the social issues encountered in the minerals supply chain, particularly in Central Africa.

An investigation by CBS News earlier this year found child laborers working in the dangerous mines of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Their findings corroborate UNICEF’s data, which estimates that 40,000 children are working in DRC mines, a large portion of which are involved in the cobalt supply chain. When asked about it, leading companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and Nokia often refer to their Code of Conduct which requires suppliers to comply with strict policies, but the reality on the ground is far from ethical or even acceptable.

Related Post: The Problem with E-Waste: How the Rich Industrialized Nations Deal with Electronic Junk

Children work alongside their parents in the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit- Julien Harneis
Children work alongside their parents in the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Julien Harneis

With the growing consumption of electronic devices worldwide and the geopolitical stakes linked to this supply chain (China has already stopped production of some minerals for a few months to prevent the prices from dropping), it seems difficult to imagine an improvement in the social and environmental conditions of mineral production.

Planned obsolescence

Have you ever noticed how your smartphone suddenly stops working after three years, four if you’re lucky? Same with your laptop, washing machine and other electronics in your house. Their lifespans seem to get shorter and shorter. This phenomenon is called planned obsolescence and refers to “a policy of planning and designing a product with an artificially limited useful life so it will become obsolete after a certain period of time”. While the EU is attempting to tackle the issue by promoting longer products lifespan, it remains very difficult for both consumers and policymakers to detect planned obsolescence and hold companies accountable for it.

If you recall the fiasco of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the battery was considered an explosion hazard it was the actual phone design that made it impossible to replace. Samsung offered to recall the devices. Can you guess where they went? (Hint: it starts with the letter L).

Samsung Galaxy Note Fiasco - The Dirty, Shameful Secrets Contained Within Your Smartphone

Unfortunately, this practice is more than common in the electronics sector and not only does it lead to more consumption than necessary to replace the obsolete products (which necessitates more raw materials extraction to produce the new devices), it also buries global landfills at an unprecedented speed with electronic waste.

E-wasting the south

Most of the electronic waste generated is sent to “southern” countries where they will often be sorted by a wide network of middle men, dealers, put back into the economy if repairing is an option or be piled up in open air landfills for the ones that are completely out of service. According to, “e-waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of the international law.” This is mainly done to avoid the costly process of recycling and reusing of the products.

Related Post: China’s Ban on “Foreign Garbage” Causes an Australian Recycling Crisis

Once the e-waste arrives at its intended destination, hundreds of people spend their days dismantling, recovering and reselling pieces or burning small piles of waste to make fires.

Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana, is often referred to as the “largest electronic waste dump in Africa” and is home to thousands of slums workers whose health has been a great concern for those who care about their faith. High concentration of lead has been found in the blood of those dealing with e-waste, highly toxic compounds usually found in electric appliances are now impacting human health, even making its way into local women’s breast milk. The air and soil pollution also exceed all European and American recommendation. One of the most toxic components of e-waste is mercury, found in such items as batteries and circuit boards. Every day, leaching and evaporation of these substances contaminate the soils, water and food stock around the landfills, sometimes leading to wide-scale pollution in the local areas. Since e-waste is frequently burned, it also causes respiratory and dermatological conditions.

Burning e-waste in Ghana. Credit- Fairphone
Burning e-waste in Ghana. Credit:Fairphone
To put things in perspective, the United Nations Environment Programme notes that “electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing waste stream in the world… [and] estimates that up to 50 million tons of e-waste is generated every year, with only 10 percent of it being recycled.”

So what can be done about the growing e-waste problem??

  • Buy used devices if you can. Many of them still work perfectly fine and let’s be honest, we don’t need the latest phone released.
  • Buy from “ethical” brands. Unlike the fashion industry, ethical smartphones and electronic devices are rare, but there are a few pioneers in the technological landscape such as Fairphone and Shiftphones who are leading the way.
  • Check NGO rankings to see where brands stand, such as this Greenpeace guide to green electronics brands.
  • Let brands know you care about sustainability in their supply chain. This post offers some great tips on how you can approach brands (it focusses on fashion, but the advice its applicable to all industries really).

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