The Toxic Legacy of 4.3 Million Flammable Samsung Smartphones
What will become of the 4.3 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones at risk of spontaneous combustion? The environmental group Greenpeace says Samsung’s corporate crisis presents a “big opportunity” to develop a new model for recycling and repurposing e-waste.
Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone maker, “has said that it will not recycle the phones and has still not offered any clarity on what it will do,” Greenpeace claimed Tuesday in a statement.
In September, Samsung recalled millions of Note 7 phones worldwide following a series of high-profile incidents in which some devices burst into flames. The company says it has sold more than 3 million devices. Greenpeace, citing data from the German research firm Oeko-Institut, says another 1.3 million were produced but never sold.
Smartphones contain toxic heavy metals such as hexavalent chromium, arsenic, beryllium, and cadmium. They enter the environment when buried or incinerated and accumulate in air, soil, and water, as well as in humans and wildlife. Much of the electronic waste ends up in such countries as Vietnam, China, and Nigeria, where poor communities burn circuit boards and plastic and soak microchips in acid to extract materials, which can turn entire villages into toxic waste dumps.
Those 4.3 million Samsung phones are worth a lot of money.
According to Greenpeace, the devices collectively contain 220 pounds of gold (worth about $4.6 million at current market prices), between 44 and 132 pounds of palladium ($408,000 to $1.2 million), more than 2,200 pounds of silver (at least $657,000), 20 metric tons of cobalt (about $575,000), and one metric ton of tungsten ($260,000).
“These materials could be recovered but would instead end up harming the environment if Samsung doesn’t repurpose or reuse these precious minerals,” Greenpeace said. “Dumping millions of phones also raises the issue of Samsung’s transparency and claims to support a ‘circular economy,’ and of the responsibility associated with resource efficiency.”
Greenpeace has launched a petition asking Samsung not to trash the phones.
Samsung did not respond to several emails seeking comment.
“Samsung has a big problem but also a big opportunity to learn how to create a better system for actually recycling phones and putting them back into future products,” said Gary Cook, senior IT analyst at Greenpeace USA. “They have a chance to make investments and get to scale for creating new systems for recovering the resources put into these phones.”
Cook said this is the first time in recent history that so many phones have been recalled at once. “It’s the exact same model returned at the exact same time,” he said. “It’s a real opportunity, given the volume, to create a system for recovery and refurbishing.”
Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, an anti-e-waste group, said he did not think Samsung would simply chuck so many valuable phones.
“I was a little confused by the Greenpeace petition,” Puckett said. “Nobody in their right mind would dump cell phones, and certainly Samsung would never do that. They would certainly have these at least shredded and smelted.”
“Samsung is one of the more transparent companies as to where recycling is done,” he said. “In North America, it has agreed to use the strictest standards and send those materials only to certified recyclers.”
Still, smartphone recycling in general “is very low,” Cook said.
“Every time you buy a new phone, all these products are coming from virgin resources,” he added. “And it’s not just a Samsung problem. The entire sector basically digs it up, manufactures it with a short product life, and starts again every three years. It’s not sustainable.”
There are at least 2 billion cell phones in the world. The vast majority will be buried in landfills or incinerated, Cook said. In 2010, Americans tossed some 2.4 tons of electronics (including about 150 million phones), of which 27 percent was recycled.
Many U.S. electronics recycling programs are scams, according to the Basel Action Network, which put GPS devices on 205 electronic products and dropped them off at recycling centers and charities. They found that more than 40 percent of the products were shipped offshore, winding up in landfills in Hong Kong, mainland China, and elsewhere.
Some 75 recycling companies—many of which claim that they do not export e-waste—did sell discarded electronic equipment overseas, and most of it went to developing countries.
Cook said that recent design changes make the devices much harder and more expensive to open for repair or disassembling.
Still, given the value of some components, an efficient disassembly method would fuel the market for recycling. For now, it’s cheaper to extract the materials from the ground than from the phones, Cook said.
Picking the right recycler is crucial, Puckett said.
“Otherwise, there will be a huge sucking sound of sending this stuff to bad processing and recycling in Asia,” he said, “as opposed to doing it right.”