There’s a famous song that says that when that hotline bling, it can only mean one thing – and scientists from the University of Plymouth have now revealed what that thing is: the proliferation of regional conflicts and the exhaustion of Earth’s resources. Actually that’s two things, so the song was wrong.
Many of us depend on smartphones for everything from ordering a taxi to finding a lover, and with around 1.5 billion phones being produced every year, it’s about time someone stopped to ask what’s in them. To answer this question, researchers put an iPhone in a blender and conducted a chemical analysis on the Apple smoothie that came out – with some slightly alarming results.
While iron and silicon were by far the most abundant elements in the phone, the team also found 900 milligrams of tungsten and 70 milligrams of cobalt, both of which are often mined in conflict zones.
Tungsten is particularly troublesome, and is one of the most notorious conflict minerals. It is extracted from an ore called wolframite, which is heavily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and sold to technology firms in order to fund armed groups and sustain local conflicts.
While the Dodd-Frank act requires all American companies to prove that any tungsten they purchase is conflict-free, in practice this is virtually impossible. Most wolframite is extracted from unregulated and unmonitored mining sites in the DRC, passing through various intermediaries before falling into the hands of technology firms, which means that by this point in the supply chain the origin of the raw material has become untraceable.
The blended phone also contained 36 milligrams of gold, meaning that it had more than 10 times the concentration of gold required to be deemed "high grade". Like tungsten, gold is one of the world’s four major conflict metals, along with tin and tantalum. Collectively, these four resources are known as the 3GT minerals.
Producing just one phone requires 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds) of high-grade gold ore to be extracted from the ground, as well as 750 grams (1.65 pounds) of tungsten ore, which gives an idea of just how much the telecommunications industry needs to purchase to meet demand.
The phone also included several rare earth elements such as neodymium, praseodymium, gadolinium, and dysprosium. These materials are highly coveted by technology manufacturers due to their magnetism and conductivity, and are used to improve the performance of all sorts of gadgets.
Yet as the name suggests, these elements are scarce and resources are in danger of being exhausted. Many are mined in Mongolia, yet fears have been raised that the country’s rare earth element supply could run out in the next 50 years.
Project coordinator Colin Wilkins said in a statement that “we are now in a climate where people are becoming more socially responsible and interested in the contents of what they are purchasing.” Shining a ray of positivity onto these findings, he added that “the throwaway society we have lived in for decades is changing, and we hope this project will encourage more people to ask questions about their own behaviours."
Of course, sometimes when that hotline bling it’s just a booty call.