The Recycling Headache Of 2.5M Samsung Galaxy Note 7s

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has been recalled by Samsung a second time, and this time it appears to be going back to Samsung for good. Samsung have told The Verge that "[they] have a process in place to safely dispose of the phones." In other words, assuming that the 2.5 million devices sold are returned, they will all be scrapped. It doesn't sound as though components will be reused; Samsung may later on explain that some parts of the Galaxy Note 7 will be recycled, but unfortunately smartphone recycling is very much in its infancy: our smartphones contain many different materials and elements and only a small number of components can be effectively recycled and reused. The director of the Department of Energy's Critical Materials Institute at Ames Laboratory, explained that rare earth elements such as indium (used in touchscreens), neodymium (in magnets such as the speaker and microphones), plus cobalt used in the battery, will be locked up in the old devices. "These are all very expensive in terms of the environmental impact, but also in the lives they impact to mine them. Having to say without any of them having been used at all that they have to go straight to the recycler is really sad."

From Samsung's perspective, condemning the mountain of Galaxy Note 7 devices could be an easier business decision than trying to reuse certain components or refurbish the handsets. It avoids consumers worrying if their device contains parts of a faulty Galaxy Note 7 smartphone. It is probably an easier financial calculation to make and earlier today, Samsung adjusted downwards its third quarter profit estimate by over $2 billion. The true cost may be impossible to calculate for some time, as the damage to Samsung's reputation is not yet known. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is a salient reminder that an embedded battery makes life extremely difficult for a product flaw such as this one. Samsung glued the Note 7's battery into the chassis, whereas previous Galaxy Note smartphones have had a user-replaceable battery. If the Note 7 was a little thicker and used a replaceable battery, Samsung would have had to ship 2.5 million batteries rather than recall the whole device, and would not have the problem of dealing with 2.5 million unusable devices.

Environmental groups do have some hope, however - that Samsung will have a pile of Galaxy Note 7s on its doorstep means it has the opportunity to experiment with wide-scale recycling techniques on a large number of devices, not too dissimilar to scientists able to experiment with new oil cleanup technology on large oil spills. Typically, end-of-life devices are recycled over a period of time and this means it's difficult to keep collection and recycling costs down. However, recycling all sold models of a given handset at the same time could prove beneficial. Samsung have one of the better reputations within the industry for recycling their devices and often highlights that it uses biomaterials for some parts of some handsets. We will await further developments.

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.