Lost in the hype about Samsung permanently pulling the plug on its exploding phone is this: The failure of the Galaxy Note 7 is an environmental tragedy, regardless of what Samsung decides will happen to the 2.5 million devices it manufactured.
Early Tuesday morning, Samsung announced it has permanently discontinued and stopped promoting the Galaxy Note 7, and has asked its customers to return their devices for a refund or exchange. A Samsung spokesperson told me the phones will not be repaired, refurbished, or resold ever again: “We have a process in place to safely dispose of the phones,” the company said.
This sounds reasonable, but the fact is that besides sitting in your nightstand drawer for eternity (a fate that will surely befall some of these phones) or being thrown into a garbage dump or chucked into the bottom of a river, being recycled is the worst thing that can happen to a smartphone.
"Smartphones are not really recycled."
There are two main things to consider here: First, though smartphones weigh less than a pound, it was estimated in 2013 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimated that it takes roughly 165 pounds of raw mined materials to make the average cell phone, a number that is certainly higher for the Note 7, being both one of the largest and most advanced smartphones phones ever created. Second, much of that mined material is going to be immediately lost.
This is because we are terrible at recycling smartphones—of the 50-or-so elements that are in a Galaxy Note 7, we can only recover about a dozen of them through recycling. Lost are most of the rare earth elements, which are generally the most environmentally destructive and human labor-intensive to mine.
Benjamin Sprecher, a postdoc studying extraction of rare earth metals in recycling at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told me in an email that “smartphones are not really recycled (the rare earth elements, anyway), so you’d lose almost all the interesting stuff in those smartphones.”
Alex King, the director of the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute at the Ames Laboratory, told me that “recycling smartphones is in its infancy.”
Lost in the recycling process are “things like indium (used in touchscreens), rare earths like neodymium in the magnets in the speaker and microphone. Cobalt in the battery from the Congo,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, told me. (Samsung recently told the Washington Post its supply chain uses Congolese cobalt, but said it takes steps to ensure it’s not mined by mistreated or child laborers.)
“These are all very expensive in terms of the environmental impact, but also in the lives they impact to mine them," Wiens continued. "Having to say without any of them having been used at all that they have to go straight to the recycler is really sad.”
This is from Samsung's 2016 sustainability report. It doesn't show the Note 7, however it's safe to assume that a huge percentage of the phone's environmental impact comes from the mining stage of its development. Image: Samsung
This loss of material is why smartphones are not usually recycled even several years into their lifespans—they are refurbished and resold to cell phone insurance companies and customers in developing markets. This is because the recoverable elements within any given smartphone are only worth a couple bucks; it is far more environmentally sustainable and more profitable to extend the life of a smartphone than it is to disassemble it and turn it into something else.
There is a potential silver lining here: Just as oil spills give scientists an opportunity to try out new cleanup techniques, a large-scale smartphone recall may allow us to learn more about how to recycle smartphones.
“End-of-life phones travel long distances and trickle in over a long period of time, making it hard to keep the collection costs down and reap any kind of benefit in the processing from economies of scale,” King said. “Paradoxically, recycling a whole generation of phones all at once may actually help us to overcome those barriers.”
Samsung has touted the biomaterials its used in some of its phones, which doesn't change the fact that the majority of the elements and metals used in the phone are unrecyclable and environmentally taxing to mine. Image: Samsung
After tearing down the phone and analyzing its components, Wiens told me he believes somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 pounds of raw minerals were required to make the phone, much of which will be lost. Reserves of many of the rare earth minerals found in electronics are also rapidly dwindling, meaning that it’s quite a bad result to take a brand new phone and recycle it.
Samsung has not put out a sustainability or environmental report since the Note 7 was released, but it generally has some of the better environmental practices in the smartphone industry. Its 2016 sustainability report notes that the company “considers environmental degradation and human rights violations in conflict areas as serious ethical issues.” It has boasted that its created biomaterials for the exterior cases of some of its older smartphones, and says it’s used 100 percent recyclable aluminum on its phones since the Galaxy S6.
"Obviously it's a massive waste of resources"
None of these ostensibly sustainable practices changes the fact that with the Note 7, Samsung has mined the Earth, shipped the raw materials to its factories, manufactured the product, shipped the product to customers and then immediately turned a highly valuable product into much less useful recycled materials.
This is before taking into account that Samsung now has to somehow recover all of the phones that have made it to customers, which requires this convoluted reverse supply chain shipping operation involving fireproof boxes, gloves, and ground-only transportation:
Image: Samsung via XDA Developers
The Side Effects of Creating Less Repairable Electronics
No company wants to do what Samsung is doing right now, and analysts estimate the company may lose up to $10 billion on this whole situation. It will also take a still-unmeasurable hit to consumer confidence. Considering that Samsung didn’t plan to make a defective smartphone, it’s tempting to give the company a pass for what was ultimately a mistake.
So how much grief should we give Samsung over this? Well, if you take a grand-scale view, it’s just another tiny drop in the ever-increasing bucket of polluted shit humans are doing to the Earth.
“Obviously it's a massive waste of resources. But the question is always one of scale. Basically everything we do in western society is a massive waste of resources, so is this something to be particularly upset about?” Sprecher said. “2.5 milion is not that large a share of the entire smartphone market, which again is a fraction of the overall metals market. So it's not that relevant from environmental or resources point of view.”
"Think how much easier it would have been to manage the Note 7 problems, too, if it had been possible to simply remove the battery"
So rather than classifying it as an irredeemable environmental catastrophe, let’s just call it a preventable environmental screwup that all smartphone manufacturers should learn from.
I say preventable, because the Note 7 fiasco wasn’t just an unfortunate manufacturing screwup, it was also a design flaw. Until the Galaxy Note 4, every version of the phone had a user-removable battery. With the Note 5 (there was no Note 6), in the interest of making a marginally slimmer phone with room for an industry-leading battery, Samsung used glue to secure the battery inside the phone’s case, making it incredibly difficult to remove for both repair and recycling purposes. Samsung has confirmed to CNET and others that the battery itself is the problem, and a battery recall or replacement program would be many orders of magnitude less difficult and less environmentally disastrous to implement if the batteries were user-replaceable.
“If Samsung could have just said we’re going to ship everyone a new battery that has 95 percent of the capacity of the old one, that’s not pushing the safety margins like the last one, it would have been fine,” Wiens said.
King, of the Department of Energy, also pointed to the design of the phone as Samsung’s main problem.
“Think how much easier it would have been to manage the Note 7 problems, too, if it had been possible to simply remove the battery,” he said. “Addressing safety concerns by making the batteries removable in future generations will have the side-benefit of making the phones easier to recycle, too.”
Smartphone manufacturers argue that consumers rarely replace their own batteries, and obviously the demand for better battery life is a constant on consumers’ lists of demands. But a mess like this shows that there are multiple reasons to make batteries easier to replace.
“This isn’t going to be the last time we see a device with an overheating or exploding battery. We are building little bombs into every single electronic device we use, and there’s a lot of challenging chemistry,” Wiens said. “The batteries in these phones are at 90 percent of their theoretical maximum energy you can pack into that chemistry. When you try to push that to 91 percent, you have this tradeoff between the battery life we want and safety. We’re pushing closer and closer to the safe line with every generation of phone that comes out.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Galaxy Note 7 was the first version of the Note to not have a user-removable battery. Samsung actually made the switch with the Galaxy Note 5.