This periodic table may make you think twice about your next phone upgrade

January 30, 2019, 12:12 p.m.
European Chemical Society periodic table
Photo: European Chemical Society

As technology evolves, smartphones are constantly being upgraded and replaced. And while that progress is laudable, there's a price for the planet. Many rare earth elements — a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table — are used in smartphones, and those elements are under threat of disappearing in the next 100 years due to over-mining.

To emphasize this point, the European Chemical Society created a new periodic table showing which elements are plentiful and which are under threat of disappearing. There are 30 elements used to make a smartphone, which is symbolized by the image next to the element. Other elements in the chart are colored red, orange or yellow to signify their risk of disappearing.

A support document explains the odd shape of the table, which was launched to note the International Year of the Periodic Table:

The 90 natural elements that make everything (and the do really make EVERYTHING) has been drawn so that the area occupied by each element gives an indication of the amount of that element in the earth's crust and atmosphere.

"Protecting endangered elements needs to be achieved on a number of levels," the group wrote on its website. "As individuals, we need to question whether upgrades to our phones and other electronic devices are truly necessary, and we need to make sure that we recycle correctly to avoid old electronics don’t end up in landfill sites or polluting the environment. On a political level, we need to see a greater recognition of the risk element scarcity poses, and moves need to be made to support better recycling practices and an efficient circular economy."

The group also recognizes elements that originate in areas of conflict, and the negative impact the demand for these elements has on those places.

"Transparency and ethical issues need to be considered to avoid the abuse of human rights, as well as to allow citizens to make informed choices when purchasing smartphones or other electronics — as many of the elements we require in our electronics are imported from conflict zones."

The society hopes "this unique and thought-provoking Periodic Table will lead to reflection and ultimately, action."