Keep your seat back in the upright position, put your tray table up, switch all electronics to airplane mode, and turn off your Samsung Galaxy Note 7. This is the new script for airline workers now that the recently launched smartphone has been reported as a fire hazard.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7’s long-awaited release happened in August of this year. Two months later, Samsung announced the smartphone recall due to reports of the device catching fire, causing injuries and property damage. The issue, it seems, is the phone’s battery, which is prone to short-circuiting due to the phone’s ultra-thin design.

According to Samsung, more than 3 million Galaxy Note 7s were sold across the world, and more than 1 million additional phones were manufactured before the company halted production in September. This means the gargantuan tech company has more than 4 million smartphones to dispose of on their hands. You can practically hear the planet send out a nervous gulp.

Anatomy of a Phone

Inside the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 are a number of hard-to-recycle metals. Photo: Photomans /
Inside the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 are a number of hard-to-recycle metals. Photo: Photomans /

Smartphones contain several heavy metals and toxic chemicals including cobalt, mercury and lead. Many of these substances are known carcinogens, creators of oceanic “dead zones,” causes of birth defects, air quality pollutants and so much more. When you look at a single smartphone, the amount of these substances seems minimal. However, the combined 4.3 million smartphones recalled by Samsung contain literal tons of these persistent environmental contaminants.

The metals inside these smartphones have quite the environmental impact, too. Harvesting these precious metals can expose workers to harsh and unsafe conditions and devastate the earth during extraction. Most of these precious metals cannot even be recycled due to inefficient recycling processes.

The term for disposed electronic devices like smartphones is known as e-waste, and its numbers are higher now than ever thanks to speedy technological advances and planned obsolescence. Companies often decide to forego expensive e-waste recycling processes and instead export the waste to foreign countries for later processing. This allows the nasty and toxic substances in e-waste to be exposed to humans and the environment, wreaking havoc on our water, soil, air and bodies.

A New Recycling Precedent?

Samsung has confirmed that they will not be refurbishing or repairing any of the recalled smartphones, but will completely scrap them. Everyone is questioning how the company will dispose of tons of contaminated e-waste produced from the Note 7 smartphone recall. This situation is unique and Samsung has the potential to set a precedent for tech companies in developing effective e-waste recycling processes. Though Samsung does offer a smartphone recycling program, it does not apply to the Galaxy Note 7. However, a Samsung spokesperson informed Motherboard that the company does have a plan for the phones’ safe disposal.

Samsung is definitely taking a big hit in this ordeal — think trillions of dollars — but this mass recall could also be a positive learning opportunity for smartphone recycling. If the tech company manages to salvage the precious metals inside the phones rather than simply dumping them, they will set a powerful example for the industry. And if nothing can be recovered and reused, perhaps the company will learn to consider the environmental cost of the entire life cycle of their products.

Featured image courtesy of Asif Islam /

By Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.