Gold is a valuable metal in the tech industry and not just because of its shine. Although it isn’t the most conductive metal, its malleability and resistance to corrosion make it a key ingredient for product longevity. Apple and other smartphone manufacturers use gold for pins, relays, and connectors — components that send signals or need to remain flexible for the lifetime of the device. In iPhones — by far the most popular smartphone brand in the United States — cameras, wireless charging coils, and logic boards all use gold.
The amount of gold in any one iPhone is pretty small, but the numbers add up quickly. “In iPhone XS, for example, gold represents less than 0.01% of the overall product mass,” or up to 0.018 grams according to the Apple’s 2019 Environmental Responsibility Report. But Apple reportedly shipped nearly 200 million iPhones in 2019 alone.
“A large part of the material footprint in the phone is the gold,” said iFixit co-founder Kyle Wiens, referring to the outsized environmental impact of an iPhone’s gold compared with its weight. If it’s not recycled, the gold in your iPhone might be sourced from a mine in a developing country and moved through a series of smelters and refiners. Each one of these steps produces waste and consumes energy.
“On average, the production of a single gold ring leaves behind 20 tons of mine waste,” said Payal Sampat, the mining program director at Earthworks, an environmental activism nonprofit. “That statistic is probably more like 30 to 40 tons of mine waste.”
Pit mining and cyanide heap leaching, two common methods of gold mining, have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat in the most biodiverse regions in the world, including the Amazon rainforest. The Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea pollutes the Pacific Ocean with more than 5 million tons of cyanide-laden toxic waste every year. From Romania and Russia to Ghana, China, and even Canada, gold mine dam spills have poisoned landscapes, caused massive fish kills, and damaged the livelihoods of indigenous communities around the world.