How many elements are there in a smartphone?
A smartphone contains more than 50 different elements, including rare earth metals and others that are difficult and expensive to mine. In addition, the rare earth cerium is used to polish the screens: in this case, an element is used that is not part of the finished product.

Metals never die

Many of these elements are commonplace in our environment, such as oxygen, carbon or silicon. There are also elements for which recycling has worked well for decades, for example silver. The recycling of iron (the ‘scrap trade’) has been practiced for thousands of years – each piece of iron used today contains a few iron atoms that have been in circulation since the Iron Age. This is one of the axioms in the extraction, use and deposition of metals: „Metals never die“ (Rainer Bunge, Hochschule Rapperswil).

Metals never die

Schweizerische Metallhandels AG Germany, Embrach, Switzerland: bismuth as an investment

A metal cannot be destroyed or ‘disposed of’. At best, it can be mixed so strongly with other substances that recycling is no longer technically feasible or simply uneconomical. Raw materials ‘destroyed’ by mixing.

What are the problems

Problematic are elements in which

  • a scarcity of raw materials is foreseeable because demand is increasing and recycling is not operational (rare earths)
  • the recovery causes massive environmental problems (rare earths, gold)
  • mining takes place in countries with low social and environmental standards (rare earths, generally almost all metals)
  • mining in war and crisis areas (‘conflict minerals’), e.g. cobalt, tantalum, tin, copper from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Globalization in the commodities market

In the course of globalization, the following trend can be seen: raw materials are no longer necessarily mined and smelted where the highest concentrations of such materials are available and the connection to existing infrastructure and sales markets is good, e.g. coal from the Ruhr region. In recent decades, new mine sites have tended to appear in countries with low environmental and social standards. Since global transport is disproportionately cheap due to the low oil price, and trade restrictions have largely disappeared, exactly where the raw materials are geographically located plays only a secondary role.

A pertinent example of this development is the extraction and smelting of rare earths, in particular neodymium, which generates considerable quantities of radioactive thorium and uranium. Potentially viable deposits in Austria, Greenland or other countries with clear legal framework conditions are not even considered for exploitation. In these countries costly ‘final’ storage facilities would have to be built for the radioactive elements thorium and uranium produced during mining and processing. In addition, high radiation protection requirements and other laws for the protection of miners cause additional costs, landowners would have to be compensated, objections from environmental groups – in some cases quite justified – could delay approval procedures, and so on.


Audioessay object biography Smartphone/Neodym (10:11)