Cell phones or mobile phones, tablets, and other personal communication devices have become ubiquitous. During 2007-2016, more than seven billion cell phones have been sold. Depending on the user’s desire for changing products, and the amount of damage it can take, a cell phone has a life of 2.5-4 years, after which it is discarded (Statista). Some phones of premium brands such as Apple and Samsung are resold in the resale market, while other brands are scrapped, adding to the electronic or e-waste.
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The amount of scrap salvaged, where workers manually extract copper, gold, and other metals from the motherboard and electrical circuit are, very low. The rest is discarded, melted, crushed, and disposed of in landfills. Discarded phones and the supply chain for cell phone parts manufacturing create substantial levels of pollution (Yin et al. 518).
About 41 million tons of e-waste is generated annually. A direct correlation between the GDP of a nation and the e-waste generated is established (Kumar et al. 39). This pollution in the form of hazardous waste, fumes of vehicles used for transportation, discarded plastic, dead lithium batteries, and other components, diffuse into the soil and water bodies. Cell phone towers generate harmful radiation, and toxins enter the food chain, and the environment causing long term harm (Logan). The thesis statement is excessive use of cell phones leads to health problems, and scrap metals, hazardous chemicals must be collected and recycled to yield profits, and for environment safety.
Types of Environmental Pollution Caused by Cell Phones
Electromagnetic Field Radiation
Electromagnetic Field Radiation (EMF) is generated by some electrical and electronic devices such as TVs, refrigerators, microwave ovens, transformers, cell phones, and cell phone towers. The amount of EMF generated, measured in watts per meter square (w/m²), by cell phones is in the range of 0.08- 4.439 w/m² for frequencies of 1800 MHz to 50 GHz. Cell towers that act as reception and transmission units radiate more than 100,000 w/m2. The safe level of exposure to EMF is 0.09 w/m², while higher doses of exposures are acceptable when speaking on the devices for a short duration (Gowd et al. 284).
The problem of EMF exposure is twofold. The first problem is the exposure caused by prolonged use of cell phones for more than an hour when people speak continuously on their devices. Danger also comes when users keep the phones in their shirt and pant pockets or keep them under the pillow when they sleep. Continuous exposure to EMF during sleep of 6-8 hours in the night is harmful. The second problem comes from cell towers erected in housing societies, in residential or office complexes.
Residents of buildings with cell towers are constantly exposed to severe EMF. The results of excessive EMF are headaches, memory loss, cardiovascular problems, low sperm counts and reduced sex drive, cancer of the brain and soft tissues, and birth defects of the fetus in the case of pregnant women. Household devices such as microwave ovens have sufficient lining and safety components that absorb EMF waves and minimal flux of waves is leaked to the environment. Cell phones are light and slim and the plastic casing does not absorb the waves. Cell towers are much more dangerous since they affect the health of many people in a large area (Gowd et al. 287).
Raw Materials used in Cell Phone Manufacturer
A major effect on the environment is the excess use of raw materials in cell phone manufacture. A cell phone has 40% of metal components, 40% plastics, about 20% trace metals, and ceramics. The raw materials used for these components are extracted from mines, processed, and then manufactured into sub-assemblies for the mobile phone. Power, water, and the fuel used in these items are high, considering the manufacture of a large number of mobile phones.
The mother-board or the circuit board has several embedded circuits made of metals such as lead, nickel, copper, beryllium, zinc, tantalum, and trace amounts of gold. The board is made of silica, crude oil is used for plastics, limestone and sand are used for fiberglass, and these materials are mined in large amounts causing damage to the environment. The Liquid Crystal Display or the touch-sensitive flat screen is made of materials such as silica, indium, mercury, glass, and plastic. The rechargeable battery is made of materials such as nickel-metal hydride, lithium-ion, nickel-cadmium, and these batteries contain lead, zinc, cadmium, metallic oxide, cobalt, nickel, and others.
These metals are mined as ores and then subjected to refining and processing, using large quantities of water and fuel. Plastic is made from crude oil derivatives and other chemicals. Many of these materials such as lead, nickel, mercury, and the chemicals are toxic. Cell phone factory workers are exposed directly to these materials, while discarded materials leach poisonous toxins in water bodies. These toxins are imbibed by fish, aquatic animals, insects, animals, and plants through the water-soil-plant pathway, and poison humans and animals (Kiddee et al. 1240).
Manufacturing of parts such as circuit boards, keypads, display screens, batteries, casing, and other components is energy and labor-intensive industry While many operations are automated, manufacturing is done with sophisticated machinery with a short life, high levels of power, and energy are used, and pollution in the form of water and airborne pollutants occurs. There is additional pollution and harm to the environment when coal is used to generate power. Coal plants produce toxic particulate matter that settles on plants, is suspended in the air and dissolves in water bodies. The toxins have a long-life and they continue to harm the environment even when dumped in landfills (Heacock et al. 559).
Transportation and Logistics
Many minerals used as raw materials are mined in Africa, China, and other regions. Extraction and refining plants of the minerals are located in India, China, Europe, and the US, while, manufacture of sub-assemblies and the complete product is done in China and India. Finished products are distributed across the world. Therefore, the logistics of the raw material from ore to final distribution centers cover the whole world.
The screen of mobile phones is a mixture of aluminum silica, indium, and tin. China exports 3000 tons of tin used for soldering. The battery is made of manganese, cobalt, and lithium. In 2014, Argentina, China, Australia, and Tibet produced 27,000 tons of Lithium. Electronic circuits of the cell phone and transmission of internal data are facilitated by silicon, antimony, gallium, indium, boron, phosphorous, and arsenic, all highly poisonous substances.
Congo exported 900,000 tons of copper in 2013. Micro-capacitors are made of palladium, platinum, niobium, tantalum, and Colton. Congo and Rwanda exported 2.4 million tons of these ores. Other products such as amplifiers, receivers, vibrators are powered by magnets made from gallium and arsenic, and South Africa is the highest exporters. China produced 80% of the global requirements of gallium and this metal is used in amplifiers, digital circuits, and in screens.
Tungsten is used in motors and China, Rwanda, Russia, Uganda, and Burundi, produced these metals, while East Africa produced 710 tons of this metal. China produces about 90% of the global requirement for neodymium, used in magnets, Cell phone casings are made from metals and plastics, with magnesium, and several petro-compounds used in the manufacture. Nations such as China, India, the US, and Brazil are the major exporters of magnesium. Underdeveloped economies such as Uganda, Rwanda, and others, derive their income from mineral exports (Olingo).
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Low efficiency, high polluting, open-pit mines are constructed, and no thought is given to the number of toxic metals that are leached into the water bodies and soil, severely harming the environment. The cycle does not end here since the raw materials are shipped to China and India, where the ore is refined, and ingots of pure metals are produced. These items are then shipped to part manufacturers who process the parts to make components. The components are then shipped or airlifted to factories in China, India, the US, and South America, for further processing and assembly. The ready-to-market mobile phones are then airlifted to stores across the globe.
Therefore, a mobile phone has materials that traveled thousands of kilometers, damaging the environment along the supply chain (Ivanov et al. 54). The assessment is that large supply chains covering raw material, processing, manufacture, and shipping of finished components consume vast natural resources. The carbon footprint of the operations is substantial, causing damage to the environment.
Methods used for Collection, Processing, and Recycling of E-Waste
As noted in the introduction, e-waste generation is about 41.8 million tons in 2014, and by 2018, this figure is expected to reach 50 million tons. About 8% of this total weight is from cell phones. Advanced nations generate maximum waste. Old cell phones are reusable and they can be refurbished and reused. However, residents of advanced countries to replace their phones every 1-2 years, even though the old devices are operational.
Cell phone manufacturers create subassemblies that require replacement of the whole part costing a hundred dollars or more, even though a small resistor, costing a few dollars may be malfunctioning. It appears that these firms, parts dealers, and repair centers, make more profits when the whole sub-assembly is replaced. In some cases, for a mid-level phone, it costs slightly more to buy a new phone than to get the faulty device repaired, with no guarantees. In any case, the customer has to find a replacement phone until the device is repaired. Regulatory authorities appear powerless to stop these predatory tactics by device manufacturers, leading to increased e-waste generation (Tanskanen 1005).
E-waste provides opportunities for recyclers and salvagers. As noted in the previous sections, e-waste contains valuable metals that can be recovered and recycled for use in electronic products. An estimate shows that about $53.4 bn is present in discarded e-waste. Given the small number of precious metals present in each device, recyclers have to process more than 1000 tons to recover 100 grams of gold. The circuit board has metals such as steel, copper, aluminum, gold, silver, palladium, platinum, etc., with potential revenue of $23,500/ ton. However, these metals have different physical properties.
Extracting each metal requires different processes or equipment, adding to the costs (Sthiannopkao and Ming 1151). Besides, hazardous materials such as lead, arsenic, gallium, and other toxins are embedded in the parts, and any extraction process poses health risks to workers. Out of these metals, gold and palladium provide the maximum returns. Salvage and recycling can happen only when economies of scale can be applied to reduce costs. Plastic waste such as casings, covers, cannot be salvaged. Plastic parts can be shredded and used to make parts for domestic appliances and the automotive industry (Heacock et al. 556).
Salvaging and recycling materials can help to save the environment in many ways. The recovered metal can be used to make components and in the assembly of mobile phones. This will reduce the demand to a certain extent on mining and processing, since the recovered metal can be directly used, and wasteful mining activities will reduce. Power used in mining and processing will reduce, though some power will be needed to make the components that go into the cell phone. Recyclers and salvagers will make profits and scale up their operations to recycle more components. Overall, the environment will benefit from salvaging.
Some concerns are that melting and burning the circuit board and plastic insulations to recover the metal releases several toxins. These include antimony, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, phosphors, biphenyl ether, polychlorinated biphenyl, polybrominated hexavalent chromium, poly-brominated flame retardants in plastics, and ozone-depleting substances. Sufficient care must be taken to trap these chemicals and dispose of them safely, else, the negative impact on the environment will be severe (Kumar et al. 37).
Methods of collecting, segregating, and disposing of e-waste need some consideration and thought. People would not take excessive efforts to send discarded devices for disposal. Advanced nations such as Canada, Germany, the US, and others, have developed an easy and convenient method to collect e-waste. Some mobile phone manufacturers offer exchange offers, where old phones are taken in and new phones are sold at slightly lower prices.
Other methods are disposal in garbage areas, drop-off at stores, and designated spaces, where special bins are provided for users to drop their unwanted devices. Some people donate or resell, while others get their devices upgraded and repaired. Some countries have firms that offer recycling services for a small fee, while others take away old devices for free. These recycling agencies need to have licenses to practice, and they have to undergo audits.
Where e-waste is disposed of in landfills, a fee of up to $100/ ton may be charged. The recycled items are wrapped in plastic sheets and buried in the ground. This practice is not safe and it causes leaching of chemicals into the ground and water systems. Government policies are needed to encourage recycling and disposal in landfills or in garbage dumps that must be penalized (Kumar et al. 40).
The thesis statement proposed in the introduction section is discussed as follows. Cell phones and waste from cell phones cause some diseases and problems and damage the environment. Cell phones emit EMF and constant exposure can lead to diseases such as cancer, headaches, vision problems, weakening of cardiac muscles, and damage to soft tissues, and birth defects to the fetus. Cell phones have several toxic metals and chemicals such as arsenic, antimony, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, phosphorus, etc. Ingestion of these chemicals through the food cycle can lead to several ailments and diseases. Therefore, excessive use of cell phones, exposure to the cell tower, leads to a high dosage of EMF radiations that are harmful.
The safe collection, disposal, and recycling present several opportunities and challenges. Opportunities are seen in the form of recovered metals that can be reused to make components. Challenges are seen in developing viable business models to provide sufficient returns for investments made for scrap recovery operations. Users must be encouraged to dispose of their old devices at designated places, so that collection becomes easier. Unless economies of scale are applied and costs are reduced, recycling is not intensive, and the environment will suffer.
The paper researched the environmental problems caused by cell phones and their impact on society. With the widespread use of cell phones, the number of cell phones in the world is more than seven billion, with a large percentage disposed of. Cell phones and cell phone towers emit harmful EMF radiations and prolonged exposure to these emissions leads to problems such as headaches, cancer, reduced sperm count, loss of libido, cardiac problems, birth defects, and many other diseases.
Discarded cell phones are an environmental hazard since they leach harmful chemicals into water bodies and the ground. The supply chain used for mining, processing, manufacture of components and finished products, and their distribution, causes pollution. Many metals such as gold, silver, copper, arsenic, gallium, palladium, platinum, etc., and these can be recovered through the salvaging process.
However, recycling procedures emit dangerous gases with arsenic, lead, and gallium. Recycling will help to save the environment to some extent, provided the salvage operations are cost-effective, and economies of scale can be applied. Existing methods for the disposal of cell phones, their collection, recycling, and salvage must be more intensive. These procedures must be made more robust through government policies.
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