Greenpeace: Samsung smartphone recall may result in “environmental disaster”

Samsung’s recall of 4.3 million faulty Galaxy Note 7 smartphones could cause an environmental disaster if handled improperly, but the firm also has an opportunity to achieve breakthrough innovations in e-waste recycling, say activists.

sf galaxy note notice
A notice at a US airport warning passengers to not turn their Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones on on planes. Samsung plans to destroy some 4.3 million devices. Image: Mike on Flickr, CC BY SA 2.0

As Korean electronics giant Samsung gears up to destroy 4.3 million of its Galaxy Note 7 mobile phones, environmental campaigning group Greenpeace on Thursday warned of an “environmental disaster”, criticising the company’s lack of an e-waste recycling plan.  

The company, which in September announced a recall of its recent smartphone model after reports of battery failures and sudden fires, has announced that it will not be repairing or refurbishing the devices, but will be disposing them. 

According to German research and consultancy organisation Oeko-Institut, the 4.3 million devices produced—Samsung has currently sold 1.8 million models in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and USA—contain some 20 metric tonnes of cobalt, more than one tonne of tungsten, 1 tonne of silver, 100 kilograms of gold and between 20 and 60 kilograms of palladium.  

Many of these minerals are mined in various African countries, a process that is often tainted with environmental destruction and human rights abuses of mine workers. 

Greenpeace notes that the materials are valuable, but would go to waste or worse pollute the environment if Samsung does not find a way to reuse the minerals.

Jude Lee, senior IT campaigner, Greenpeace East Asia, said in a statement that “Samsung now has an opportunity to set an example to the industry: will it recover and reuse the precious metals and other valuable materials in these 4.3 million devices and avoid an environmental disaster or will it simply dump them?”

The environmental group has also urged Samsung to separate and recover the precious minerals, calling it a “perfect opportunity to put into practice the closed loop production principles they speak of on their website”. 

This incident shows how fragile and wasteful our current system of production is.

Jude Lee, senior IT campaigner, Greenpeace East Asia

Samsung, in a statement said that it recognises the concerns around the discontinuation of its Galaxy Note 7 phones, and is “reviewing possible options that can minimise the environmental impact of the recall in full compliance with relevant local environmental regulations”. 

However, the company declined to comment on details of the options it is considering and whether it will make a public statement on its e-waste management plan. 

But despite calls from green groups, the process of recycling smartphones may not an easy or realistic outcome. 

Industry experts have noted that smartphones in general are not easy to recycle. The quantity of minerals in a single smartphone are not worth much, and the cost of dismantling, transporting, and processing them to recycle tends to outweigh the benefits.

In fact, experts estimate that only about a dozen of the 50-odd elements in a Galaxy Note 7 can be recovered through recycling.

But while this paints a pessimistic outlook for the environment, observers also note that a recall as massive as Samsung’s presents an opportunity for innovation. 

As Vice Magazine’s Jason Koebler noted in a recent piece, “Just as oil spills give scientists an opportunity to try out new cleanup techniques, a large-scale smartphone recall may allow us to learn more about how to recycle smartphones”. 

Greenpeace’s Lee agreed, pointing out that “this incident shows how fragile and wasteful our current system of production is”.

He added: “Samsung has an opportunity to rethink its production model - one that would improve recovery of precious metals and rare earth minerals, to design products that can be more easily repaired, recycled or reused”. 

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