Is that blood on your phone?

There’s a lot of blood behind your cell phone, mostly as a result of the exotic materials inside. 

Materials Extraction and Processing

The poster child right now is Tantalum, used in capacitors (don’t buy some).  Tantalum Oxide is smelted from coltan (colombite-tantalite), a rich reserve of which is in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a West African nation with a weak government, a still simmering civil war, and a sizeable population of lowland gorillas.  Poaching pressure from hungry miners and habitat destruction has decimated the population, and the population of elephants has been nearly wiped out—functionally there are no more elephants in Eastern Congo.  Illicit mining of coltan in the Congo is incredibly simple: dig a hole, pick up nodules of the mineral.  The ease of surface mining made it incredibly attractive, especially when prices were at their peak, according to the Economist article Digging a grave for King Kong, miners could make $80 a day-a first world salary in an impoverished country, which goes quite a long way in an area with little law (Economist 2003).

Update: Nicholas Kristof’s article (6/26/2010) on the continuing conflict minerals issue:

The extraction of other metals causes substantial damage as well.  Smelting releases heavy metals into the air, which contaminate the ground and water.  This fallout bioaccumulates, moving up food chains and poisoning high-order consumers, including humans.  The damage is most pronounced from neonatal exposures—mercury is a neurotoxin and it is recommended that women who are pregnant or who intend to become pregnant avoid carnivorous fish like tuna.  Through the food web, these small doses of poisons are undoubtedly having an effect, however hard to directly quantify. 

For the most part, pollution control laws have reduced the huge releases of smelter fallout in Europe, the US and Canada—Sudbury, Ontario is no longer shrouded in a cloud of sulfurous gases which have acidified lakes, sterilized the landscape, and damaged the health of workers and city residents, but even with treatment, acid gas, nickel, and other elements are present in the waste stream emitted from the world’s second tallest smokestack.  Check out Stompin’ Tom Conners’ fun song where he ribs on INCO, Sudbury Saturday Night
Norilsk Nickel is the world’s largest heavy metal smelter, and the pollution in Norilsk is so severe as to reduce life expectancy by 10 years, compared to the Russian national average (National Geographic).


In production, there is a large amount of energy use, in electricity and process heat (from fossil fuels).  There are a lot of nasty process chemicals used in production of semiconductors and electronics, and the wastes from processing aren’t so pleasant either.  In processing, there are a lot of solvents used for degreasing, solvents used in plastics, dopants, and all kinds of wastes like bits of plastic, flakes of metals, and dissolved materials in the aforementioned solvents.  There’s a lot of water used as well, which much be processed before release to recover metals and remove organic contaminants.

Workers at Samsung are protected by Korean standards for occupational exposure to chemicals, overseen by KOSHA.  KOSHA is affiliated with the International Ergonomics Association and the ILO, and has reduced the rate of industrial accidents to parity with other developed nations.  It is unknown how much of the componentry is outsourced to other firms, aside from the battery, which is also produced by a Korean company subject to the same government oversight.

The high toxicity of process chemicals and materials presents a hazard to workers.  As toxic metals are used in the semiconductors (subject to RoHS restrictions) in conjunction with organic solvents, part making and assembly do expose workers to toxic materials.  Appropriate safety equipment is mandated by KOSHA, as are appropriate facility controls including ventilation.


The use phase of a mobile phone’s life has significant impact, as a result of electricity use.  Apple’s lifecycle analysis for the iPhone claims that approximately half of the greenhouse gas emissions are as a result of charging electricity use (US energy mix, presumably).  The particular damage caused as a result of electricity use varies: in areas with coal or oil fired thermally generated electricity, local environmental damage is a result of acid, ash, and gaseous pollutant emissions; thermal pollution; and damage related to resource extraction.  Hydroelectric power dams inundate enormous areas, destroying habitat and displacing residents, but produce little direct emissions—there are some emissions though from decaying material in the reservoir.  Wind turbines have been at the center of debate regarding bird kills—the spinning blades have been claimed to be a substantial hazard to birds, but other studies claim the hazard to be no greater than that of stationary towers for radio and power lines, which do present a bird kill hazard.


The disposal of electronic waste causes a large amount of environmental degradation.  The transport of e-waste emits pollutants into the biosphere, proportional to the distances traveled and modes of transport.  A substantial amount of e-waste is shipped to developing nations, where ‘recycling’ occurs with minimal or no pollution controls.  The effluents from these operations leach toxic materials into the ground and water near processing operations, and air pollution has a significant impact on workers’ and proximate populations health.

Industrial recycling operations also release acid gas and metal vapors as a result of smelting processes, albeit in much smaller amounts than the unregulated ‘recyclers’ overseas.  Proper E-waste recycling substantially reduces the amount of pollution released and its attendant effects on humans and the environment, but does not eliminate the release of toxic materials, and does not fully recover the valuable metals in mobile phones, such as Tantalum (Mooallem, 2008).

By considering the materials in mobile phones as technical nutrients, used in closed-loop cycles, the environmental impact of disposal would be reduced substantially, is it would no longer be ‘disposed of’ in the traditional sense.  While remanufacturing will require the use of natural resources, this can be reduced by designing with a cradle to cradle mindset, as opposed to a cradle to grave one.


Electromagnetic radiation has been posited to be a contributing factor to Colony Collapse disorder.  A study published in Bee Culture examining the effect of cordless phone radios embedded in hives did have an effect, but this result cannot be generalized to cellular phone radios, which use a different set of frequencies, and the energy levels are much lower—towers and handsets are not embedded in hives (Kimmel et. al, 2007).  A study using GSM telephone radios did not find significant impact to bee navigation. (Mixson, Abramson, Nolf, & Johnson 2009).

While bees and other animals are known to use electromagnetic field sensing for navigation, it is unknown what effect mobile phone radiation has on animal navigation, although the limited number of studies performed have not found a significant impact.

Electromagnetic Radiation Effects on Human Health

The jury is still out: the National Cancer Institutes considers cell phones safe, but research by several other centers may indicate otherwise.  An article in Scientific American reviewed several reports, and could not come to a conclusion.  Due to the enormous number of variables, and lack of traceable effects (such as the presence of mercury in tissues) from non-ionizing radiation doses over years, it will be difficult to come to a definitive answer.

A 2001 NYU PhD thesis by  investigating the relationship between EM radiation from mobile phones and brain cancer found no significant correlation.  While cell phones were not prevalent in the 1990s in the US, they were popular overseas, and the study was well designed to control for differential exposures over four years.  Now, this study would be almost impossible to run, as mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous—where could you find a comparable control group?


Mitigation of Impacts (part I)

The impact of mobile phones on animals is substantial, and the pollution impacts due to heavy metals, acid gases, and organic pollutants are long-lived.  There are design and philosophical decisions which can substantially reduce the impact of mobile devices:

  1. Reconception as a product of service.
    A mobile device is already a product of service in the US, although not necessarily treated as such.  Networks substantially subsidize the cost of handsets, and offer promotions like New Every Two – to get you to renew your contract with the carrier and buy a new device.  The old handset might get donated to help people in need of communications, or it ends up being recycled with varying levels of resource recovery and environmental damage. 
    What about obligating takeback when customers get a new device, to eliminate the phone-in-the-drawer problem, which is significant?  Or making the devices last much longer than two years, in terms of electronics and design?  I loved my StarTac until its electronics failed (by 2004 it was hopelessly outdated: no camera, tiny text, and only a monochrome LCD screen)
  2. Users want three things from their mobile device: (1) the ability to communicate, (2) a platform for applications, and (3) a platform for individuation.  The communications part is easy—the radio in a mobile phone is relatively standard, and could be on a replaceable chip like a SIM card, the SIM card is eminently replaceable, and the rest of the electronics are flexible, being a for the most part a general purpose microprocessor and associated hardware.  Software is everything.  And software can be upgraded.

    The big thing in smartphones is application support.  The App Store has made vertical integration into a is So, new functionality is as close by as the nearest … wait for it … Everywhere!  This thing’s got a radio in it and packet data connection wherever you get service!  So why would you need a new one if all you need is software?  Provided the hardware doesn’t break and satisfies your needs for sensors and looks, you’re set.

    From the moment Gordon Gekko appeared on screen with the “Brick” in hand, cell phones have had cachet as extensions of personal identity.  The craze of changing faceplates, adding charms, and the iPhone as an object of desire unto itself continue to satisfy this basic need for individuation, and servicizing the mobile has to take this into account.

  3. Technical Nutrients cycle
    McDonough and Braungart’s concept of technical nutrients used in closed cycles apples well to mobile phones.  The rare metals like tantalum need to be recycled (and can be), and the plastic shells could be recycled if they were composed of higher grade single material, separable plastics.  While complex parts like screens and integrated circuits cannot be easily reprocessed, there are recycling
  4. While the processing power of current smartphones is impressive, Moore’s law marches on, raising the bar in terms of microprocessor capabilities.  Replacing the electronics of a mobile phone is difficult due to the packaging constraints, and the continual march of progress in microelectronics design and capabilities.  But the flexibility of general purpose microprocessors, running software platforms with support for a wide variety of functions can certainly have a useful life of more than two years.The high degree of software defining the mobile experience of a smartphone makes it possible to upgrade functionality without changing hardware.  The open source Google Android platform is designed to be modified by end users, and the application support offered by the smartphone OS platforms provides for a high degree of flexibility
    Flexible hardware platforms including sensors, GPS receivers, replaceable batteries, and damage-resistant shells.I’ll coin a term here: D4F: design for flexibility (not failure!!).  If an artifact is to have enduring utility, it has to be able to adapt to different circumstances.  Information technology devices have to evolve with the science of human-computer interaction, and the needs of the user (two wholly different things).  Software can keep changing on top of good hardware, extending the life of a physical product.
    The App Store, and by extension, support for applications beyond the manufacturer provided software really take the smartphone into its own.  Where manufacturers wouldn’t bother to make a float level mobile application, someone made the app for the iPhone.

Communication of Impacts

The impacts of mobile phones are to some degree hidden from consumers – they are buying a device and service, and not particularly motivated to think about environmental impacts, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions or toxic impacts.  Eco-labeling may have an effect, but it is likely to confuse customers, or if environmental labeling is misused as a marketing tool, it is likely to damage the credibility of eco-labeling.  Apple has published a greenhouse gas lifecycle analysis for the iPhone, but this is only an assessment of one type of impact—there is substantial environmental damage due to resource extraction and disposal, in addition to the GHG emissions from production and use.

The GHG impact of a mobile phone is non-trivial, and a substantial part of that impact can be eliminated by disconnecting the charger from the mains electricity, eliminating the vampire power draw.  Communications from utilities, the networks, and device manufactures are recommended to tell people to unplug/switch off power supplies when not charging the phone.  New products combining charging capability for multiple devices can reduce electricity consumption, using more efficient (and expensive) components, which is justified by it being sold as a product unto itself.  Standardization of charging connectors, still a work in progress, could also make it easier to justify only having one power supply, with high efficiency electronics.  The Energy Star program has set standards for power supplies, and mobile phone manufacturers are building power supplies to meet them.

A comprehensive communication of impacts would address the ecological and human impacts of the device in several dimensions:

  1. Ecological damage due to resource extraction
    – proportion virgin material/proportion recycled material
  2. Human health impacts due to resource extraction
  3. Social impacts due to resource extraction (e.g. mining in highly sensitive areas)
  4. Ecological damage due to production
    – toxic materials used in production
  5. Human Health impacts due to production
    – toxic materials used in production
    – occupational health and safety compliance (OSHA, ILO, WHO)
  6. Toxic material exposures to users (i.e. offgassing of volatile chemicals, leaching of chemicals)
  7. Energy consumption in use, quantified by time (e.g. one year of use = 13.1 kWh, at local electric rate, that’s $2.23 on your electric bill)
  8. End of useful life disposition(s): biodegradation, recycling, sequestration
    – toxic material exposures
    – what to do with the device (send it back!)
    – what will happen to it when it comes back
  9. failure modes
    – toxic materials that can be released due to damage



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