iPhone Smoothie Reveals its Environmental Footprint
Scientists stick an iPhone in a blender to see what it’s made of.
If you wish to find out what’s in an iPhone, you’ll need to destroy it. Step 1: choose an iPhone 4S, not an expensive iPhone X. CAUTION! Remove the battery. Then, if you’re a research duo at the University of Plymouth, you don safety glasses and stick the smartphone in a blender.
After some processing and analysis, here’s what the iPhone smoothie revealed:
More interesting to the researchers were some of the less abundant but more precious elements they found:
Gold: 36 milligrams (0.001 ounces). A typical 14-karat gold ring has about 2.5 ounces of gold.
Silver: 90 mg (0.003 ounces). An old-timey U.S. silver dollar had about 0.77 ounces of silver.
Other hard-to-pronounce elements found in lesser quantities:
And there were four rare earth elements, which aren’t necessarily rare but are widely dispersed and therefore difficult and costly to mine:
That’s just a partial list of what’s in typical smartphones, which “are made from about 75 different elements, almost three quarters of the periodic table,” says Larry Meinert, deputy director for energy and minerals a the U.S. Geological Survey.
The point is:
“All of these need to be mined by extracting high value ores, which is putting a significant strain on the planet,” said Arjan Dijkstra, a UK geologist at the University of Plymouth who did the iPhone-in-a-blender project with his colleague Colin Wilkins.
Mining all these elements involves leaving vast scars on the planet and creating tremendous amounts of unused waste, whose ill effects have been well documented, from localized health disasters to deforestation of rainforests.
The blender experiment was undertaken to highlight what the researchers call conflict metals — those that are sometimes or often mined under dangerous conditions that even involve child or slave labor. The goal of the project, they said, was to make people aware of the importance of recycling their phones or hanging onto them longer.
So what’s the footprint of an iPhone 4S (battery not included)?
Specifically, getting all the stuff found in the pulverized handheld device would have required mining of 10 to 15 kilograms (22 to 33 pounds) of ore of various types, Dijkstra and Wilkins said.
How much is that? For context, 33 pounds of iron ore would fill a gallon jug 1.5 times, according to this calculator. Generating 33 pounds of copper would require 1.75 gallons of ore. And 33 pounds of cobalt ore would measure out at about two-thirds of a gallon.
So let’s do a really rough, non-scientific average and call it 1 gallon of earth that must be mined to make your smartphone. And then multiply that by 1.4 billion — the number of smartphones sold last year. (And, of course, add in the lithium and other materials that go into the batteries.)
The video above has some helpful volume comparisons for the various metals in all those smartphones, based on the smoothie findings and shown in cubes to scale vs. a human and a soccer field.
Given all this, I’ve put the iPhone to one of its many good uses: