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When Phones Become Organ Donors

By Jessica GuyonMarch 31, 2021

Here’s how phone recycling works

Not all phones get to experience the same happy ending with a new owner. Those phones get recycled. First off, smelters and refiners separate all of its parts into three primary material streams: plastic or aluminum housing, internal circuit cards, and batteries.

Materials like glass and other cosmetic components are easily removed and reused depending on their viability and demand. The battery gets shipped off to cobalt recovery and the internal circuit cards, where all of the precious metals are usually found, are shredded to destroy any leftover data. Then, the remaining gold, silver, and copper, among other metals used to conduct electricity on phones, head to the smelting stage.

Cell Phone Parts
Disassembled Smartphone

Here, the precious metals are heated at preset temperatures and skimmed from the vat as they rise to the top as liquid. Continued temperature increases slowly repeat this process until all metals are extracted.

The smelter either refines the resulting metals or sells them in bulk to metal refineries that remove any impurities from the base metals using various substances. The refined metals are then sold in bulk for use in things like medical equipment, jewelry, and ironically, new cell phone components.

Recycling phones is important for myriad reasons. First off, there’s the sheer quantity of precious metals recovered from the process. For instance, 300 times more gold is contained in one ton of iPhones than in a ton of gold ore, according to a 2013 estimate, not to mention the infinitely greater costs of mining the ore out of the ground versus through recycling. But there is also the financial argument: Sourcing precious metals from e-waste costs 13 percent less versus the mining of ore, according to research published by the American Chemical Society.

Think of it this way. The more phones that get recycled instead of thrown away or left in a drawer, the less expensive everything from iPhones to gold rings will be in the future.