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The Value of Metals in Cell Phones

Cell phones are small, and so the quantity of metals contained in each cell phone is also small. When many phones become obsolete, however, the quantity and value of the metals contained in those phones become significant.

Copper.—If the 2,100 metric tons of copper in cell phones retired annually and the 7,900 metric tons in cell phones in storage were recycled in the United States, then the copper recovered from cell phones would amount to 1 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively, of the 225,000 metric tons of copper recovered from obsolete scrap in the United States in 2004. The average price of copper for 3 years, 2002 through 2004, was about $0.98 per pound (about 454 grams). At this price, a cell phone contains about 3.5 cents worth of copper. The total value of the copper in cell phones retired annually, without accounting for the recovery costs, is approximately $4.6 million; the value for obsolete cell phones in storage is $17 million.

Silver.—If the 46 metric tons of silver in cell phones retired annually and the 178 metric tons of silver in cell phones in storage were recycled, then the silver recovered from cell phones would amount to almost 3 percent and 10 percent, respectively, of the 1,700 metric tons of silver recovered from scrap from U.S. recycling activity in 2004. The price of silver averaged from 2002 through 2004 was $5.33 per troy ounce (about 31.1 grams). At this price, a cell phone contains about 6 cents worth of silver. The total value of silver in cell phones retired annually, without accounting for the recovery costs, is $7.9 million; the value for obsolete cell phones in storage is $31 million.

Figure 4. Components (in weight percent) in a typical cell phone in 2000. (data modified from Mobile Takeback Forum, 2005)

Figure 4. Components (in weight percent) in a typical cell phone in 2000. (data modified from Mobile Takeback Forum, 2005)

Gold.—If the 3.9 metric tons of gold in cell phones retired annually and the 17 metric tons of gold in cell phones in storage were recycled, then the gold recovered from cell phones would amount to 4 percent and 18 percent, respectively, of the 95 metric tons of refined gold recovered from recycled materials in the United States in 2004. The price of gold averaged from 2002 through 2004 was $362 per troy ounce. At this price, a cell phone contains slightly more than 40 cents worth of gold. The total value of the gold in cell phones retired annually, without accounting for the recovery costs, is $52 million; the value for obsolete cell phones in storage is $199 million.

Palladium.—The average price of palladium for the period 2002 through 2004 was $265 per troy ounce. At this average price, a cell phone contains almost 13 cents worth of palladium. The total value of palladium in cell phones retired annually, without accounting for the recovery costs, is $16 million; the value for obsolete cell phones in storage is $63 million.

Platinum.—The average price of platinum for the period 2002 through 2004 was $696 per troy ounce. At this average price, a cell phone contains less than 1 cent worth of platinum. The total value of platinum in cell phones retired annually, without accounting for the recovery costs, is nearly $1 million; the value for obsolete cell phones in storage is $3.9 million. These values illustrate that, when large numbers of cell phones become obsolete, large quantities of valuable metals end up either in storage or in landfills. The amount of metals potentially recoverable would make a significant addition to total metals recovered from recycling in the United States and would supplement virgin metals derived from mining.

Summary

Recovery and recycling of cell phones are in the early stages of development, as is the case for recycling of electronics in general. For cell phone recycling to grow, recycling must become economically viable. Efficient recovery infrastructure, product designs that simplify dismantling, and other changes are needed to facilitate the growth of cell phone recycling.

This information was obtained from The Encyclopedia of Earth