Making Smartphones More Modular

Today’s smartphones are incredibly complex, and a great deal of this complexity is unnecessary. “It is very realistic to think that there are 1,000 substances involved in making a phone,” Thea Kleinmagd, a circular material chains innovator at Fairphone, tells me. “For producing one phone, you move 75 kg of materials. This includes the fuel used, and the cleaning substances that are needed throughout the production. If you think that we produce 1.4 billion phones every year and multiply that by 75 kg, it is a huge amount of material that we move.”

Difficulty Separating Smartphone Materials

Smartphones often contain only tiny amounts of a material, according to Thea. “Therefore,” Thea added, “it is very difficult to separate these materials. What happens in the recycling process currently is that the battery is removed and the phone is thrown into a shredder, and then afterwards you have several separation technologies that will sort the shredded parts. You have ferrous materials that will stick to a magnet, and if you have a material, like gold, that is still attached to it, then this will probably not be recycled, because this part will end up in the ferrous material processing line. Like this, you lose a lot of materials.”

The system, according to Thea, is not really made for all the materials that we have in products nowadays. “There are now so many more materials being used than when our recycling system was planned,” Thea added. “The processes are targeted to recover certain materials, which means that others materials are lost. In general, there are a handful of materials that pay for their processing. Other materials which are rather scarce but don’t have a high price on the market, they are not really worth recovering.”

Related Article: Design Products With Eye for More Sustainable World

Making Smartphones Modular

According to Thea, rare earths are not really recovered in our current system. They sound rare from the name but they actually are not, Thea added.

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