To determine the contents of a mobile, without the aid of a reverse-engineering company like iSuppli (student discount price for the report I need: 3200 USD), I did the dismantling myself. The local Verizon store was nice enough to give me a few very dead phones, which I proceeded to dismantle and weighed the components to get a close enough estimate of what’s inside to do a fair LCA.
A mobile phone, especially a small one like a Motorola RAZR, is really an exercise in packaging design: how to cram in all the necessary circuitry, and as big a battery as possible, while keeping the form factor to something that reasonably pleases the management and doesn’t deviate too far from the designers intentions—although most phones seem to have been designed by committee (you know the joke), rather than by Naoto Fukasawa.
Behold the ‘potato phone’
it’s pretty elegant and has this wonderful tactile-ness, the shape of the shell resembling the squared-off facets of a potato peeled with a knife. Man, Naoto Fukasawa is cool.
Regardless, there’s a lot to cram in there. I dismantled a Nokia candy-bar phone, rescued from the e-waste bin and here’s what it’s made of:
With all these materials, most of which are not easily recycled, the more than 1 billion cell phones in circulation make for a pretty hefty impact at end of life, and made a pretty large impact in their creation as well.
While the majority of the innards are electronics and battery, the impact can be reduced by designing for disassembly (which requires human labor input), and a change from the current mode of ‘recycling’ where the phone is shredded first then put through a materials recovery process, which mostly recovers the basic metals (recovery of exotic metals still is infeasible—the tantalum in your phone ends up as contaminants in the recovered metals.
Using recyclable materials instead of ones which degrade is a pretty basic choice: the aluminum and glass shell of the iPhone is eminently recyclable, as opposed to polycarbonate which cannot be recycled to the same polymer level—recycled PC (where it is recycled) usually ends up as a filler plastic for things like bumpers and packing materials.