In recent days providers of cell phone technology have launched various -“going green” campaigns that encourage the recycling of old cell phones. I think it is important for us to understand how effective and how important these programs are at reducing pollution, water use and destruction of our precious lands.
On the surface of the issue, the average person considers that silicon, the main ingredient in electronic components is massively abundant, and assumes that recycling something so commonly available surely can’t impact our environment. A closer look however tells a different story.
Silicon, when chemically processed is an effective low-cost, flexible semiconductor. Semiconductors are metals that can act both as a conductor and an insulator of electrical current. This allows them to be harnessed to make resistors, transistors and computer chips. However, it is in the processing of silicon that we can see how important cell phone recycle programs are.
While each manufaturing company uses their own process for producing silicon-base electronics, they all generally use great amounts of deionized water, acids and other chemicals to produce the desired products. A typical process might look like this:
- General cleaning using sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide and deionized water rinse
- Polishing/clean using ultrasonic impact and deionized water rinse
- Removal of oxides using hydrofluoric acid and deionized water rinse
- Removal of metals contamination with deionized water, hydrochloric acid, and peroxide
- Final rinse using deionized water
Electronic manufacturers have become diligent about reusing deionized water rinses, chemicals and other resources, but clearly you can see that the manufacturing of electronic components is a very water-intense process. Add to that reality that when making cell phones other precious materials like copper, nickel, germanium and chromium are also commonly used. All of these metals require mining, which in turn requires fossil fuel-burning machines, disruption of the earth, and transportation of raw materials.
Also crucial to remember is that since water is the universal solvent, cell phones that wind up in landfills will eventually have the metals used in them dissolved by rains. Then, those metals will be released into our lands and water sources. At that point, those solid metals become toxic liquids to us.
Make no mistake about it; the “going green” programs being promoted by cell phone providers aren’t just for show. They are important, responsible programs. We too should be responsible and recycle our cell phones.