Experts at the University of Plymouth stated back in 2019 that around 1.4 billion mobile phones were manufactured annually, while in 2022, Statista wrote that some 1.39 billion phones are being sold every year, so chances are production actually increased.

What are smartphones made of

In the past, smartphones were mostly manufactured, and here we're talking about the outer shell, of plastic of metal (aluminum). Since 2016 - 2017, glass was favored as a material for the rear of most phones to allow for things like wireless charging, while ceramics and faux leather were sometimes used for exclusive or very high-end models.

The sides of a phone nowadays are mostly made from aluminum and plastic, with stainless steel also being a fan favorite among more expensive models. However, some phone manufacturers started using titanium as a more luxurious alternative, although it's worth mentioning that this is nothing more than aluminum coated with a thin layer of titanium (sub one millimeter usually).

But the phone is more than its outer shell. Even the touchscreen contains some metal for the touch ability to take place. In a breakdown of the metals found in a phone, World Economic Forum explains that the touchscreen contains a thin layer of indium, a highly conductive and transparent metal.

The display also contains multiple rare earth elements, such as europium and terbium, although the contents of the actual panel depend on whether it is an LCD or OLED model. Copper, nickel and tantalum are used for the electronics of the device, found on the motherboard that contains the processor, SIM card reader and more.

Pretty much all phones these days use a lithium-ion battery, which contains important materials itself, while the vibration motor, microphone and the speaker are made of nickel and magnets, to name a few materials. Let's not forget about gold, which is used for its conductive properties in the CPU unit of the phone.

Of course, we're talking about small amounts of these metals and materials, but with the billions of phones being manufactured every year, these start to add up quickly.

How are smartphones recycled

Before actually recycling a phone, it's best to pass it to other users before it really becomes obsolete and can't be used for its original purpose. Selling or giving away your old mobile phone will extend its lifespan and reduce its overall carbon footprint.

But when the time finally comes to send it to the recycling center, reprocessing a mobile phone is a bit more complex than recycling paper, for example. Due to the multitude of components found inside, any smartphone should first be disassembled and every component should be removed individually.

MobileMuster explains that the company's recycling process allows for an 89% recovery share of the components found in every phone.

"They are sorted and disassembled into components: batteries, printed circuit boards, casing, screens, accessories and packaging. These components are processed separately through shredding, crushing, heating and smelting techniques to maximize resource recovery", the company explains.

Many of the materials found in a smartphone can be reused to make new phones, other electronics or other goods altogether. The lithium-ion battery, for example, can be recycled to extract the black mass and to reuse it when manufacturing new battery cells.

Precious metals, such as gold and copper, can be extracted from a motherboard and used to manufacture new motherboards for phones or laptops, for example.

The outer casing is another part that can easily be repurposed, especially if we're talking about aluminum. Recycled aluminum can be used to make new frames for phones or even exterior casings for laptops.

If the phone is sent in its original cardboard packaging, even that can be recycled and reused when manufacturing new cardboard packaging for future products.

The benefits of recycling smartphones

Recycling unused smartphones has many benefits for the planet, but also for the economy. Not only do we divert these electronic devices from the landfills, where they can pose great environmental risks, but we can recover very valuable materials that can help us reduce the strain on the planet's resources.

At the same time, recycling one million phones reduces greenhouse gas emissions in an amount that is equivalent to taking around 1,300 cars off the road for an entire year. Recycling smartphones can also greatly contribute to a circular economy in the electronics market, enabling manufacturers to implement ready-to-use materials in their upcoming devices.

The added benefit is a lower overall cost, effort and energy requirement, since reprocessing materials is actually less energy-intensive than working with virgin resources.

Recycling precious metals, such as gold, silver and copper, will help us prevent the depletion of these resources, which are found in limited to very limited amounts in natural deposits.

Many manufacturers and companies make it easy to extend your phone's lifespan or to recycle it, by offering trade-in programs. This way, you receive credit for your next purchase, while making sure that your old phone will be repurposed in a responsible way.

If you want to be even more sustainable, you might want to question if you really need a new phone, as the urge to purchase the latest model can be cumbersome for many people, while their existing device is still perfectly capable of doing everything they need.

Also, before you go out to buy a phone brand new, especially if it's for a user that doesn't need the latest or the greatest, take into account buying an older used model that may provide them with all they need, but at a lower cost and with a lower footprint on the environment.