Contrary to common practice, Samsung did not have its Galaxy Note 7 tested by an external party but did the job itself – and considered it “good”. But shortly after launching the smartphone in the USA and South Korea, phones caught fire and batteries exploded – this is a bit exaggerated, because in fact, there were “only” 100 cases. These were enough though, to recall the Galaxy Note 7 even before it was launched in Europe.

First sales then also production were stopped and the phone, classified as “dangerous prohibited material” could only be transported back to the US overland. It’s not, like it’s become common practice, reused for the few precious raw materials.

MORE THAN 70 KILOS OF RAW MATERIALS IN ONE PHONE

Most disused mobile phones are kept by former users (ca. 30%), another part is given away or sold and the rest, one way or another, ends up as waste. Usually, electronic devices are more likely to be repaired and used again than thrown away – especially because the disposal has become very expensive.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimates that about 75 kg of raw materials are used when producing one single smartphone. Not even 10% of those are reused when phone parts are recycled. Precious metals are present in very small concentrations, the biggest part of the materials are synthetics.

UPCYCLING SMARTPHONES? A LOSING GAME, NOT ONLY FOR SAMSUNG

Due to the small concentrations, sometimes single-digit percentages, of precious materials upcycling is very complex and costly.

Only a few companies in Europe are able to separate the precious metals from electronic scraps. The battery and the display, for example, contain extremely high doses of harmful substances and have to be immediately disposed appropriately.

A shredder breaks up the rest of the phone into coarsly-ground granulate, a magnetic separator picks out the metals containing iron – further on, electrostatics divide plastics from aluminium and the rest is melted and refined. By-products in copper are disaggregated by electrolysis and a sulfuric acid bath.

It is a complex chemical procedure that leaves only little to remain. Which is a shame considering that many of the raw materials are won under terrible conditions in third-world countries.

10 BILLION DOLLARS FOR DISPOSAL

Samsung announced that they would not upcycle their latest phone at all. That means simple disposal will leave at least 450 tons of electronic waste (not counting the packaging, chargers and wasted materials from production).

Even though they “dispose safely” and do not re-use any parts of the phones at all, this effort will cost Samsung about 10 billion dollars, and that’s comparatively cheap. Shares from other technological companies that belong to Samsung were lately sold for about 800 million dollars.

The smartphone catastrophe peaks in damage limitations for Samsung. But who will pay back the planet? In times when nobody wants to abstain from their smartphones, unfortunately, this remains a theoretical question.