Technology: Help or Hindrance?

Technology walks a fine line, environmentally, allowing humanity to make stunning breakthroughs, from GM crops to monitoring the planet in more and more detail. However, it is also the reason for increased mining, use of precious metals, and destruction of land; is technology humanity’s saving grace, or is it just destroying our planet faster and faster?

By the beginning of 2020, there were 3.5 billion smartphone users around the world. Just four years prior, this number was 2.5 billion – but did you know a variety of precious metals are sourced to make your phone?

The three most common metals in your phone are iron, aluminium and copper, but another common element used in the wires is gold. Mining for gold generates abundant waste of cyanide and mercury, which has rather serious effects on human health as well as the aquatic environment.

According to Forbes, it’s been noted that in order to meet demands of rare earthly elements, increased focus has been placed on mines, the ocean, ‘and the even moon’

However, this does not mean that our technology must come at the price of our planet. Recycling old phones means we can reuse the rare earthly minerals, as well as save a large amount of money. The money lost by simply dumping your old tech into the bin once a new model comes out is valued at $55 billion a year – in the US, that’s roughly £50 per person lost in ‘E-waste’ in 2014 alone.

But it’s not only consumers that are contributing to the lack of tech recycling, and it’s most certainly not only their fault! California started a new rule in 2004 which increases tax on electronic devices in order to pay for the future recycling of those devices once they are used. However, mobile phones are not included in this rule, even though they produce part of this waste.

The average life cycle of a phone in the UK is less than two years. If we were to recycle the 1.7 billion models sold a year, imagine how much mining (on the Earth or Moon) could be prevented throughout the use of all those recycled materials!

In fact, I’ve done the maths for you:

75 pounds of gold can be recovered from 1 million recycled phones, as well as 772 pounds of silver, 33 pounds of palladium and 35,274 pounds of copper.

An iPhone has an estimate of 0.34g silver, 0.015g palladium and 15g copper; this means that 1 million phones not tossed into the landfill would provide enough silver for 2270 phones, enough palladium for 2200 phones, and enough copper for 2351 phones.

However, looking at mobile phones simply as a collection of metals isn’t the way to work out their true impact on our everyday life. You also have to take into account that mobile phones do much more than just make a call. People no longer need to have a separate camera, map, compass, calculator, radio, recorder etc. In fact, the sale of cameras dropped by 87% since 2010.

Radios are another product that has dropped in sale. The average American home has half the number of radios it did back in 2008. The number of Americans that do not have a radio is now four times larger than it was 12 years ago. Is there a chance that this has anything to do with the rise of the mobile phone? Could it be that the increase in fancy, everyday tech has actually caused the decline in other material production processes, having arguably a good effect on our planet?

Do mobile phones then help the earth, or walk a very fine line between helping and hindering?

Suggested by @henna.129 on Instagram.

About the Author: Ani Talwar can be found at @Mischief.weavers, she wrote the book ‘ATRO- CITY THE FLOOD’ and cares passionately about sustainability.

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