iPhone 5 vs. Samsung Galaxy S3: Which is More Toxic?

by ‐ Tags: green living

At both the beginning and end of their life cycles, modern electronics are a risk to the environment. Both the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S3, today's top mobile phones, are excellent examples of this. The process of putting these devices together starts, of course, with raw materials. The expensive, hard-to-find substances that polish the glass, make the screen's colors pop, and ensure the vibration buzzes are called rare earth metals--and extracting them from the earth can be messy. The refuse, or tailings, left over from mining are mildly radioactive and toxic acids are required as part of the refining process. When disposed of irresponsibly, the waste products from these mines have harmed nearby communities and poisoned water supplies


Towards the other end of an iPhone's or Galaxy's life is the disposal of your old phone, a situation which has its own set of potentially harmful circumstances. Although many companies strive to keep their levels down, high tech electronics consistently contain toxic materials such as bromine, lead, mercury and chromium. This is the case with many popular products, but the mobile phone market stands out because only 8% of devices are disposed of properly and recycled. This practice of simply throwing old cell phones out leads to their toxic contents in the ground through a landfill or in the air through incineration. Currently, only 18 states ban electronics from landfills and incinerators, and even then, products are often sent overseas for unsafe disposal.

Tech manufacturers are often silent when it comes to the exact breakdown of what goes into their products, so the only way to find out exactly what was in each phone was to take apart each one and chemically analyze the pieces. So iFixit.org and HealthyStuff.org got together to do so, using an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to establish the exact chemical composition of each component. In total, 36 phones of varying brands were examined. Analysts found that while both the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 were in the top ten best devices in terms of low toxicity, the iPhone 5 contained a lowest volume of the two and was classified as “low concern,” while the Galaxy S3 was rated as “medium concern.” See the chart below.

cell phone toxicityAlthough the Galaxy S3 isn't far behind it, the iPhone 5 makes the cut as a "green" phone. So for those whose purchasing choices are informed by this type of information, the Apple product is the better choice. 

Even so, all high tech products--cell phones, laptops or even wind turbines and hybrid car batteries--contain toxic chemicals and rare earth metals that are hazardous to refine and dispose of.