Safeguarding element supplies

Do you know what finite elements are in your modern tech?
19 February 2019

Interview with 

Lizzy Ratcliffe, Royal Society of Chemistry


this is a picture of a smart phone


As a society we all know that we need to change our habits to keep things like energy consumption sustainable. But have you ever thought about element sustainability? Could we run out of them in the future? Chris Smith spoke to Lizzy Ratcliffe from the Royal Society of Chemistry....

Lizzy - We're very aware of sustainability as a thing. In terms of things like plastics or energy or fish stocks or sustainable housing. But we don't think about is certain areas of the periodic table that we might not have heard of. So I don't know if you think about whether yttrium is sustainable, but actually it's not. All the naturally occurring elements you have to dig them out of the ground, they’re in mines and once they're gone they're gone. And a lot of them we're using in our daily lives and we don't even know it. So many of the rare and precious metals are present in our electronic devices. So in our mobile phones, Xboxes, Smart TVs, in pretty much everything we use so everything we need for modern tech comes from this part of the periodic table where there's not a lot there.

Chris - So the elements are not all made equally in terms of abundance? Some of them we really like but there's not much of them on Earth.

Lizzy - Yeah exactly. So there's plenty of aluminium, plenty of iron. We're not going to run out of pots and pans anytime soon. But indium some people think it might run out in the next 50 years, some people think it might run out sooner.

Chris - When you say run out, does that mean literally. I've got an old mobile phone sitting in front of me here I understand there's something like 30 key elements go into just making one of these. But when you say run out does that mean that basically we've made so many mobile phones that all of these rare elements are in all these devices and in active service. So we haven't got enough of the element left to dig up.

Lizzy - The thing is that most of us aren't really recycling our mobile phones and they're not made in such a way that they're easy to recycle. So the concern is that they could all end up in landfill. So at the moment we're digging out of the ground, we're using them, but we're not putting them back into the system. So there really needs to be a circular economy where we can plow the elements back in. Otherwise yes, they will run out. If they end up in landfill we won't have them, and not just for technology, but for other things as well. So a lot of the elements we're using in our phones they're also used for aircraft engines, drill bits, hearing aids, pacemakers, they all have all these uses and we don't even know what some of them might be needed for in the future, while we're squandering them on our mobile phones.

Chris - This old phone it's very old it's a clamshell type of phone, that says how old this is, but that there will be a sort of a suite of materials in there which will have been used to manufacture it. Are they easy to scavenge back though? So if I took it upon myself to recycle this, how easy is it to get things like indium out of that so that you could reuse it?

Lizzy - It's not particularly easy at the moment. And part of that is because manufacturers are making them in such a way that they're not easy to dismantle. So some manufacturers make them with custom screws or special glue so you can't just break them apart. So that's a big problem. And even when you do break them apart getting the elements out isn't that easy. But if we start thinking about that at the manufacturing stage it could get a lot easier.

Chris - But I'm surprised given that we've learned our lesson in so many ways, so many times in the past, about things like this with squandering resources and using them sensibly and making them recyclable. Plastics, we talked about earlier in the program, classic example. Why are we not doing this with the elements in these?

Lizzy - Well this being the International Year of the Periodic Table is a great time to start thinking about that. It's just not made its way to the public consciousness yet. I wasn't aware until I start doing this research as part of our celebrations. I wasn't aware of how many rare elements are in my phone or in any of my devices. It's just not something that we think about yet.

Chris - But if I take it upon myself to have responsibility and recycle my milk bottles, or my wine bottles not many of those of course I'm a responsible drinker, but I know exactly what to do with them. So what can your average person do with an old phone like that, to make sure that they are safeguarding our element future?

Lizzy - So there are some things that you can do the Recycle Now website has a facility but you can pretend your postcode and it will tell you what recycling facilities nearby.

Chris - But are there any?

Lizzy - What we found was there's there's not. I've tried, and there's not consistency across different councils.

Chris - Because the Royal Society of Chemistry are a pretty potent organisation, they can lobby very hard. Is this something that you're going to start pushing this year and say look we need to be more responsible about this we might have, you know it sounds like a long way away 50 years, but time is passing quickly and we're going to run out of these things pretty fast.

Lizzy - We're doing a piece of research right now to demonstrate the scale of the problem and find out how many people are hoarding devices. And we'll be able to start producing some advice for government, manufacturers, retailers and individuals on how we can protect these basic elements better in future.


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