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Listen Up! The Life Cycle of a Cell Phone

By Faith Yarberry

A life cycle is the series of stages something passes through during its lifetime. We also use the term for things that are not living, like cell phones.

The life cycle for anything you buy includes getting the materials from the earth, making the parts, delivering the product from the factory to the store (and later to you), your use of the product, and how you get rid of it when you have finished using it.

Being friendly to your environment means thinking about everything that goes into the things that you use, and finding what you can do to limit their impact on the environment.

For example, let’s look at cell phones and ways we can change how we use them to be better friends to the Earth.

The reason this is important is that there’s a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated and released into the air during the different steps in a cell phone’s life cycle. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that scientists have found to cause climate change. In fact, up to 91 kg of CO2 (a little more than 200 pounds) is released for every single cell phone!

Cell phones are roughly 45% plastic (made from carbon compounds), 35% metal, and 20% glass and ceramic. Almost half of the CO2 (43%) created or used during a cell phone’s life cycle happens during the raw material phase, caused by the machines used to discover, extract, and refine petroleum needed to make the plastics. These machines use a large amount of energy, usually gasoline or diesel fuel, which releases CO2

The other parts of the cell phone life cycle that cause CO2 emissions include:

  • Manufacturing — About one-third (34%) is caused by factories that use large amounts of electricity, most of which is generated using fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.
  • Distribution — The next 9% is used by the trucks that deliver the phones to stores, mostly from burning diesel and gasoline.
  • Usage — 11% is generated to produce the electricity used to recharge the cell batteries many times. 
  • Disposal/resell/recycle — About 1%.

If you throw your cell phone away or leave it in a drawer at home, and buy a second cell phone, then that new phone will result in another 91 kg of CO2. Recycling or reusing the first cell phone will reduce the amount of material taken from the earth.

Nearly 1.5 billion cell phones are bought annually, but barely 10% are recycled. That means 1.4 billion phones are thrown away or left forgotten in drawers at home. By not recycling, we make 72 billion kg of CO2 that is given off into the air. That is about the same weight as 2 million full semi trucks.

Finally, let’s look at the effect of recycling on some of the metals taken from the earth to make an iPhone. Below are some of the metals used in an iPhone, and the amount of each.

Metallic silver bars

Silver - 0.34 g/phone

Metallic copper rods

Copper - 15 g/phone

Metallic aluminum rods

Aluminum - 25 g/phone

Metallic gold bars

Gold - 0.034 g/phone

If we recycled the 1.5 billion cell phones bought each year, what could we save from being taken out of the earth?

  • 47.6 million grams of gold (worth $123 billion)
  • 476 million grams of silver (about the same weight as 680 cars)
  • 21 billion grams of copper (the same amount of copper as 750 Statues of Liberty)
  • 35 billion grams of aluminum (about the same weight as 7,800 elephants)

Now that is a lot of metal!

What you can do

Before you consider recycling your cell phone, you should first think about reusing it until it no longer works and can’t be repaired. At that point, you can recycle it, rather than just putting it in the garbage. Recycling your cell phone will reduce your carbon footprint by reducing the amount of CO2 that is generated and released into the air. Recycling will also reduce the amount of metals that must be removed from the earth to make new cell phones.

Now that you see what recycling cell phones can do for the planet, consider starting a cell phone recycling campaign. The environment needs you, so stop talking … and listen to it!

Faith Yarberry is a Lecturer II at the University of Central Arkansas, in Conway, Arkansas.