What do you do with 4.3 million unsafe smartphones?
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Image Credit: Samsung

Image Credit: Samsung

Burying and recycling the Samsung Note 7 is going to take time

4.3 million smartphones. That’s how many devices Samsung is now responsible for the disposal of. In raw numbers compiled by Greenpeace that means 30 tons of cobalt, over a ton each of both silver and tungsten, 284 pounds of gold, and dozens of pounds of other rare earth elements.

For less less-valuable materials like aluminum, cobalt, glass, copper, and plastics, the quantities are even weightier.

To put it in perspective, that quantity of gold, since it’s relatively pure, would be worth close to $5 million. Of course, each individual phone has such a tiny amount of gold that at best you’d be extracting a few dollars’ worth of the stuff per device. Plus, you’d have an even bigger pile of leftover toxic metals to dispose of for every phone, and that isn’t cheap either.

Having ruled out refurbishing the Note 7, Samsung is left with millions of defective products to dispose of. It can choose to simply ditch them wholly, but this would be a tremendous waste of resources. More likely, it will take the devices apart for their still-valuable metal components, recycling these and then disposing of the rest of the body and circuitry.

Recycling is increasingly seen as a way forward in the e-waste business, but there is a lot of catching up to do. Only 10-12% of all smartphones get recycled, and the resulting piles of trash are a blight on whatever landscape they end up cluttering. Given the toxicity of the materials, many steps in the process should be automated.

Yet, many are still performed by people who lack the proper training and protection.

The way forward, big tech companies believe, is in robotics – like Apple’s iPhone dismantler – and phasing out unsafe methods, especially cheap dumping of products into developing nations’ junkyards when these can be resold domestically after rebuilds for more profit.

But even more so than recycling, the manufacturers believe in rebuilding devices to sell in lower-end markets, extending the device’s life without the need for advanced technology and energy-intensive recovery processes.

Multibillion dollar efficiencies

Where do our smartphones go? A tracking study by the Basel Action Network found that of those sold in the US, one third goes abroad, ending up in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and East Africa. Much of the e-waste that is exported now ends up in Hong Kong, as China has been cracking down on imports of used consumer electronics.

There, though, the processes are not only less safe, but highly inefficient, with up to half of the valuable elements being lost to the processes. This has been driving developed nations to hold onto more of their waste than in the past, when recycling was largely ignored, so they can make the most of it financially. There is an urgent need, as scientists have noted, to educate companies and consumers with, “Knowledge about which chemicals are used in electronics, as well as information on how they are used, handled, and recycled or disposed of.”

(Samsung, for its part, has been an industry pioneer in this respect.)

Recycle, rebuild, or repurpose

Most US e-waste is processed domestically now, though the US lags behind other OECD nations in making full use of the recycling option. Within that industry, both in the US and elsewhere, there is a growing recycling and refurbishment business. Companies like Green Citizen in the US or Dowa Eco-System in Japan, for example, caters to this market, which is projected to be worth $5 billion by 2020 worldwide. Indeed, the short cycle of many of our devices remains a boon to the industry.

But key companies are taking a lead to recover costs and present a more environmentally friendly face to consumers. Apple, for instance, recovered $40 million in gold from devices last year, part of a larger campaign to recover two-thirds of all the e-waste in its recycling program.

Although the recycling and recovery processes aren’t cheap, they do have one advantage: They are extracting an already refined resource. That process is nowhere near as energy-intensive or labor-demanding as the initial stages of mining and refining that for every ounce of gold, copper, and cobalt produced tons and tons of useless rock, toxic slurry containing mercury or arsenic, and embarrassing investigations about work conditions for the extractive operations.

Repurposing is also an option, and a very environmentally friendly one at that, but for now, recycling and rebuilding are the preferred choices for large companies.

Past precedent is not on the table

The size of the recall, and that it is occurring now rather than the usual cycle where phones drip back to the manufacturers or waste disposal entities over several years, is unprecedented. Samsung does maintain a larger e-waste recycling program in South Korea, for example, which is actually separate from government efforts. With some additional capacity, it could in theory handle the pending Note 7 wave.

For now, Samsung is only saying its, “currently reviewing possible options that can minimize the environmental impact of the recall in full compliance with relevant local environmental regulations.” It has not announced what it will do with the Note 7’s cables and cords, or the pen that came with it, though these too will have to be dealt with since they also contain toxic metals and plastics, as well as recoverable pieces.

What it most likely will not do, given the “full compliance” promise, is have another bonfire.

Screenshot: TV Chosun

Screenshot: TV Chosun

In 1995, Samsung burned thousands of malfunctioning consumer electronics devices, including cellphones, worth at least $50 million. Rather than refurbish or recycle them, the company destroyed an entire South Korean factory’s output, just to make a point to the employees.

Few if any precautions were taken at the time. Video footage of the event shows that devices were smashed to pieces and then set alight. The slag piles were bulldozed as well. This “example,” set by the company’s then-CEO, Lee Kun-Hee, is now widely cited in management tracts as an effective, if wasteful, strategy because the spectacle underlined how unforgiving management would be if further product defects were encountered: This led to a much greater emphasis on quality control.

In a more environmentally and cost conscious world, though, this grand gesture is not likely to be repeated.

But, just as this set a long-running, and transformative, precedent inside Samsung’s workplace culture, how the company lays the Note 7 to rest will impact the e-waste industry for years to come.

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