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Essay: Examining Raw Material Sources and Impacts of iPhone 6 – Apple’s Global Environmental Impact

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Katarina Hilton

Examining the Raw Materials in an iPhone 6

The first generation of Apple’s iPhone was introduced in 2007, and since their initial release, the iPhone has transformed over eleven generations, each version unique in its design, features, and environmental impact (Eadicicco). As newer iPhones are released, consumers are trading in and large amounts of electronic waste are created as a result. With now more than 700 million iPhone users in the world today,  I began to consider the life cycle analysis(LCA) of these devices (Reisinger). To provide the most accurate analysis possible, I chose to assess the iPhone 6 specifically and the raw materials it is made from, as each iPhone model may differentiate in its materials. I bring to question: where do the raw materials used in an iPhone 6 originate from, how are they processed, and what are the environmental and social impacts? I will discuss the raw materials used in an iPhone 6, as well as the means by which they are extracted and processed, and the environmental and social impacts of these processes. I will conclude with suggesting actions that may be taken through government policy, by individual consumers, and electronic companies to mitigate the environmental impact of the iPhone.

Raw materials are the building blocks from which an iPhone 6 can be manufactured. Every piece of the iPhone originates from elements that are extracted from around the world. Apple released an environmental report for the iPhone 6, with the breakdown of the materials found within the device shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Material Used for iPhone 6 (‘iPhone 6 Environmental Report’)

The material use figure provided by Apple provides a basic breakdown of the materials used to make the iPhone 6, but it does not specify what elements are being used to produce these various components. In a study to determine the life cycle analysis of an iPhone, researchers crushed an iPhone 6 to measure the elements contained within the device. They also measured the gases that were escaping during the breakdown process, as these are elements used in the processing of these electronic materials (Merchant, 2017). Figure 2 shows all the elements that were discovered by the study, as well as the amount found in the phone and their monetary value.

Figure 2: Elements found in an iPhone 6, 16GB Model (Merchant, 2017)

All of the elements listed are used to produce the materials referenced in Figure 1. Note that not all the elements within an iPhone 6 are listed in Figure 2, as there are very small amounts of rare earth elements mixed in with these other elements that could not be detected accurately enough to weigh them. As there are various raw materials being used, each with a unique origin and extraction process, these substances and their impacts will be divided and discussed in five groups: rare earth elements, metals, plastics, and glass.

Rare earth elements, or REE, are a group of seventeen elements in the periodic table, referenced in Figure 3, comprised of the fifteen element lanthanide series and scandium and yttrium (‘Rare Element Resources’). These metals are not particularly rare, but typically occur in the same ore deposits and present similar chemical properties, making it difficult to separate the metals from each other (Behrendt et al., 2007).

Figure 3: Highlighted Elements are classified as Rare Earth Metals (‘Rare Earth Elements’).

 iPhone 6 components require various REE’s so the phone can function properly. Neodymium is used to produce powerful magnets that are used in the speaker of the phone, along with Terbium to stabilize the vibration(Ebnesajjad). Lanthanum is used in the camera, phone circuitry, and vibration unit. Yttrium, terbium, europium are used for the color screen of the device, cerium and praseodymium are used to polish the screen(Ebnesajjad). These elements are likely mixed with trace amounts of other rare earth elements.

Most REE’s are found in Inner Mongolia and China, which produce approximately 90% of the world’s supply (Rodriguez et al., 2015). They are extracted through open-pit mining, in which stepped benches are carved into the ground so ore can be transported up the mine (‘How Metals are Mined’). Explosive charges are placed in holes drilled into the rocks to blast the ore into collectible sizes. These are then taken to a crushing facility, ground into a powder by large rotating steel balls, and mixed with water to form a slurry. This slurry is moved to a hot floatation facility, where chemicals are added to the slurry that cling to the REE’s when heated’How Metals are Mined’). The chemicals and REE’s will then float to the top of the mixture by attaching to the surface of floating bubbles, and mining companies will skim off the rare-earth concentrated solution, and melt and pour the concentrate of the different REE’s into the desired mold (Greene). Some elements require further processing,such as gold, which involves oxidizing the ore with high pressure steam in an autoclave, then dissolving the metal products from the autoclave with chemical solutions and separating the materials from carbon (Greene). These products are then melted and poured into whatever shape and size necessary.

The production of REE’s is environmentally damaging, as the rare-earth concentrate that is skimmed off the top of the mixture and used makes up only 8% of the slurry mixture. The other 92% of the mix doesn’t have any commercial use, so it is disposed, often into a tailings lake, which holds mining byproducts (Greene). Figure 4 shows a tailings lake in Baotou, China. These tailings lakes can cause radioactive waste to seep into the ground, contaminating the crops, water, and people in local communities. Furthermore, REE’s are difficult to recycle later on, so while they are only found in only small amounts, it can prevent other parts of the iPhone from being recycled (Rodriguez et al., 2015).

Figure 4. Tailings lake in Baotou, China (Greene)

Aside from rare earth elements, there are several metals that go into the making of an iPhone 6, each with different origins and purposes. Aluminum is sourced out of Australia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, and is used in the casing of the phone (Tweney, 2013). Iron comes from a variety of places, the top three locations being Australia, Brazil, and China, and can be seen in the casing, frame, and battery. Copper used in the wiring as a conductor comes from Chile, and gold, which is also found in the wiring and the circuit boards, originates in Peru (Tweney, 2013). Lithium is mined out of Bolivia and Chile, and is found in the iPhone lithium-ion battery (Eason, 2010). Nickel comes from Canada, and is used in circuit boards, the battery, and phone decoration (Tweney, 2013). The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to several metals found in the iPhone 6, including tin, lead, zinc, and cobalt, which are all put in the phone’s circuit boards and battery( Merchant, 2017).  

The mining and production of these metals is a complex process, and mined ore tends to contain several metals that are naturally linked, making it difficult to precisely mine one specific element (B”rkey, 2011). Figure 5 shows the ‘metal wheel’ which, for example, illustrates zinc (Zn) and lead (Pb), two carrier metals, linked to silver (Ag) and gold (Au), which are then linked to cobalt (Co), bismuth (Bi) and many other co-elements as seen in the white ring of the metal wheel. These carrier metals and co-elements can all be found in the same mined ore, and are also linked to the co-elements in the most outer ring, such as iron (Fe) and copper (Cu), which are collected as residue from the processing of the elements in the third innermost circles within the wheel (B”rkey, 2011). This wheel shows how the mining for one metal inherently leads to the mining of other metals.

Figure 5. The Metal Wheel showing linkage in Natural Resources Processing (B”rkey, 2011)

Metals have many environmental implications, such as gold, which is found in only small amounts in an iPhone 6, requires pounds of cyanide to process 1 ton of ore, creating a large amount of cyanide byproduct ("Cyanide leach mining packet."). Gold and several other metals require large amounts of water in the refining and cooling process, and the mining of these materials entails disruption of natural habitats, and results in erosion, pollution, and displacement of wildlife. The metal wheel in figure 4 shows how coelements are intermingled such that the mining for one element leads to the mining of other elements. This can lead to the metals used in the iPhone being mixed with lead and mercury, which are toxic and can make recycling not feasible, and can also lead to more wasteful byproduct being produced as metals not used for phone production are processed and disposed. The metals in an iPhone 6 also have a negative social impact, as mines from which metals are extracted have miners working in unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, with little protection from debris and a heavy risk of a tunnel collapsing (Merchant, 2017). Furthermore, many mines use child labor, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the profits obtained from mining fuel ongoing political conflicts in the country, as rebels force children and people to mine and take the profits to fund their campaigns (Behrendt et al., 2007).

 Polycarbonate (PC) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) are the two plastics found in the casing of the iPhone 6 (‘The Life Cycle of Materials in Mobile Phones’).  Plastics originate from organic materials, a main source being crude oil. Plastics are developed by distilling the crude oil in an oil refinery, where the oil is separated into components (‘How Plastics are Made’). Naptha is a fraction of oil that is necessary for the production of plastics. Naptha goes through polymerisation, in which ethylene and propylene are monomers linked to form long polymer chains, which are what form plastic. Plastics have a massive impact on the environment, as they never biodegrade, and just sit in landfills. The plastics used in the iPhone 6 are made from non-renewable resources, and are developed using energy-intensive processes (‘The Life Cycle of Materials in Mobile Phones’). The manufacturing of plastic can pollute air, land, and water, and may expose workers to carcinogens.

Aluminosilicate glass is used in the touch screen of the iPhone 6, and is produced throughout the European Union (‘All About Glass’). Glass is made through a mixture of white sand, sandstone, sodium bicarbonate, and limestone that is melted together, cooled, and cut into the desired screen shape. The glass is then coated with a variety of silicone and fluorosilicone polymers to address screen concerns such as reflecting and smudging (‘All About Glass’). Glass is another materials that has a significant energy footprint, due to the high temperatures needed to process glass. To produce glass at high temperatures, natural gas is combusted, and this emmits the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, thus participating in the increasing impact of climate change (‘All About Glass’).

It should be noted that there are still gaps in the data regarding this topic. The LCA data is sparse for many of the metals used in the iPhone, with greenhouse gas emissions and energy demand for many metals still unknown. The international flow of iPhones going to reuse and recycling is still unknown, making it difficult to quantify how many raw materials that could be recycled or reused are being lost to landfills. The extraction of raw materials along with the production of these materials contributes to 85% of the total greenhouse gas emissions made by the life cycle of the iPhone 6, proving this research to be significant to changing the environmental impacts iPhones have(‘IPhone 6 Environmental Report’). Furthermore, most people are not aware of what materials go into manufacturing their phone, and do not think about how these materials may be disposed of, so this information may be used to educate smartphone users. While this paper is limited to an iPhone 6, similar materials are used in other electronics, so investigation of raw materials in an iPhone 6 can be useful in analyzing the LCA of other products.

There are many potential solutions that can be implemented to decrease the environmental and social impact of the iPhone 6. The government could place greater restrictions on the materials allowed in electronic devices to control the amount of hazardous material in products, and to combat the amount of toxic byproduct produced by processing various metals. It could also focus more on closing illegal and unregulated mining activity, and set labor condition standards, so companies getting materials internationally have to do so through manufacturers that treat workers well. Apple  could use more recycled materials in the production of the iPhone 6, and could provide incentives to get iPhone users to turn in their old phones for recycling, so old products could be recycled back into new phones. Apple could also incorporate bio-based plastics, which are made out of  renewable biomass sources, such as feedstock, and can biodegrade, making them less environmentally hazardous (Inoue, 2007). Consumers also have a voice in how things can be produced, and can advocate for transparency regarding the locations and ways in which phones are processed. They can also recycle old phones instead of keeping them, so the materials within can be recycled and reused. While the Apple iPhone is a revolutionary product that has impacted many people’s lives, it has a heavy environmental and social impact that should be decreased through government action, consumer choices, and changes in the manufacturing of products.

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