You have one, your parents have one, your friends each have one—owning a cell phone has become as common as having a traditional land-line in your home. More than 156 million Americans now use cell phones—including about 20 percent of American teens! In a way, cell phones have become a necessity of everyday life—we use them to call home when we’re late, make plans with friends, or get directions when we’re lost. But have you ever thought about how cell phones are made and what happens to them when you don’t need them anymore?
Like any product, making a cell phone and its parts uses natural resources and energy, which can potentially impact the air, land, and water. Understanding the life cycle of a product can help you make environmental choices about the products you use, and how you dispose of them. You can help minimize your environ-mental impact of using a cell phone by:
Keeping your phone longer. Choose your cell phone service provider carefully. Pick a phone with features you need and a style you like so you will keep it longer.
Charging your battery correctly. Increase the life span of your phone and battery by following the manufacturer’s directions for charging the battery.
Reusing or recycling your phone. Find ways to reuse or recycle your phone and accessories when you’re finished with them. Many companies recycle or reuse cellphones — visit the “Resources” section for a list of suggestions.
PHASE 1: Materials Extraction
A cell phone is made up of many materials. In general, the handset consists of 40 percent metals, 40 percent plastics, and 20 percent ceramics and trace materials.
The circuit board (also called a printed wiring board), located in the handset, is the “brain” of the cell phone because it controls all of its functions.
Circuit boards are made from mined, raw materials including copper, gold, lead, nickel, zinc, beryllium, tantalum, coltan, and other metals. The manufacturing of these boards requires crude oil for plastic, and sand and limestone for fiberglass. Many of these materials are known as “persistent toxins” and can stay in the environment for long periods of time, even after disposal.
The liquid crystal display (LCD) is a low-power, flat-panel display on the front of your phone that shows information and images. It becomes opaque (hard to see through) when electric current passes through it. The contrast between the opaque and transparent(see-through) areas forms visible characters.
Various liquid crystalline substances, either naturally occurring (such as mercury, a potentially dangerous substance) or human-made, are used to make LCDs. LCDs also require the use of glass or plastic.
The rechargeable battery is used to power the phone. Cell phones can use several types of batteries: nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH), lithium-ion(Li-Ion), nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd), or lead acid. Ni-MH and Ni-Cd batteries contain nickel, cobalt, zinc, cadmium, and copper. Li-Ion batteries use lithium metallic oxide and carbon-based materials, all mined from the earth.
PHASE 2: Materials Processing
Most raw materials must be processed before manufacturers can use them to make products. For example, in cell phones:
Crude oil is combined with natural gas and chemicals in a processing plant to make plastic;
Copper is mined, ground, heated, and treated with chemicals and electricity to isolate the pure metal used to make circuit boards and batteries. The resulting copper pieces are shipped to a manufacturer where they are formed into wires and sheets.
PHASE 3: Manufacturing
Plastics and fiberglass are used to make the basic shape of the circuit board, which is then coated with gold plating. The board is also composed of several electronic components, connected with circuits and wires (primarily made of copper) that are soldered to the board and secured with protective glues and coatings.
LCDs are manufactured by sandwiching liquid crystal between layers of glass or plastic.
Batteries consist of two separate parts, called electrodes, made from two different metals. A liquid substance, called electrolytes, touches each electrode. When an outside source of electricity such as an outlet is applied, chemical reactions between the electrodes and the electrolytes cause an electric current to flow, giving batteries their “juice”, or power.
PHASE 4: Packaging & Transportation
Cell phone parts and the finished products need packaging and transportation to get from one place to another. Transportation by plane, truck, or rail all require the use of fossil fuels for energy, which can contribute to global climate change.
While packaging protects products from damage, identifies contents, and provides information, excessive or decorative packaging can be wasteful. Packaging consumes valuable natural resources, such as paper (from trees), plastic (from crude oil in the earth), aluminum (from ore), or other materials, all of which use energy to produce and can result in waste. Some packaging, how-ever, can be made from recycled materials.
PHASE 5: Useful Life
Unlike other countries, cell phone companies in the United States sell their own phones, which are usually not interchangeable from company to company. Even though regulations now allow consumers to transfer their phone number to a new phone company, most companies have unique technologies in their phones that only work in their own networks.
This means that switching cell phone companies can mean having to purchase a new phone. One way to extend the useful life of your phone and prevent waste is to use the same company for continuing phone service. Always comparison-shop to be sure you get the service and phone that’s right for you.
You can also extend the life of your phone by taking care of it—protecting it from damage by storing it in a case, avoiding dropping it, and keeping it out of extreme heat and cold and away from water and other liquids.
PHASE 5: End-of-life
Donating or recycling cell phones when you no longer need or want them extends their useful lives, and prevents them from ending up in the trash where they can potentially cause environ-mental problems.
Many organizations—including recyclers, charities, and electronics manufacturers—accept working cell phones and offer them to schools, community organizations, and individuals in need. Reuse gives people, who could not otherwise afford them, free or reduced cost access to new phones and their accessories. Plus, it extends the useful lifetime of a phone.
About 150 million cell phones are disposed of every year in the United States alone. That's up to 35,000 lbs. of copper and 772 lbs. of silver that can be recovered per 1 million devices recycled.
Electronics recyclers are springing up everywhere! Today, many stores, manufacturers, and recycling centers accept cell phones for recycling. While some electronics recyclers only accept large shipments, communities, schools, or groups can work together to collect used cellphones for shipment to electronics recyclers.
Some rechargeable batteries can also be recycled, as several retail stores and some communities have started collecting them. When rechargeable batteries are recycled, the recovered materials can be used to make new batteries and stainless steel products.
Check the “Resources” section for a list of organizations that will accept your phone and accessories for reuse or recycling. You can also use the Internet or phone book to search for local contacts that recycle and refurbish cell phones.
Cell phones that are thrown in the trash end up in landfills (buried in the ground) or incinerators (burned). Because cell phones contain metals, plastics, chemicals, and other potentially hazardous sub-stances, you should always recycle, donate, or trade in your old cell phone. It’s free and easy. Don’t throw it away! Phones that are thrown away waste energy and result in the loss of valuable resources.
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