Earth Day 2021 Rare Elements  by @Alison Ackroyd

By Karen Hornby posted 25-03-2021 10:35


Earth Day 2021 Rare Elements 
by @Alison Ackroyd

Why is the element Sb poor? Because it is antimony! 

Pun aside, 
this relatively scarce resource is just one of the thirty or so elements comprising electronic devicesYou may be startled to hear that, like antimony, several key components of our beloved mobile phones are indeed running out, illustrated by this alternative view of the Periodic Table by EuChemS. 

all the posters lining the science corridor in pre-COVID times, it was a graphic displaying the world shortage of elementin a mobile phone that really captured the attention of our students. The poster formed part of an RSC digital pack, full of similarly alarming illustrations that promoted their campaign #preciouselements for the International Year of the Periodic Table. 

Finite Resources, Limited Recycling 

Our phones, tablets and computers are all constructed using finite resources. Some of these are conflict elements, others are toxic and some are even set to run out in the next 100 years. The periods of lockdown in 2020 and 2021 have led to a surge in purchases of new devices for home working, home learning and fitness. The digital divide has also been a recurring news item.  With Earth Day 2021 on the horizon, it seems prescient to reflect on the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19 and how they can be applied to the post-16 vocational curriculum. 

Image from RSC digital pack   (At least six of the precious elements in mobile phones are set to be fully mined in the next 100 years. Find out more about this growing problem, and how you can help: #PreciousElements #IYPT2019 #Sustainability)

Royal Society of Chemistry recently reported concerning findings on the boom in technology sales. Only 12.8% of those surveyed recycled their old office equipmentwith a staggering 40 million-plus devices yet to be recycled. A full report is expected later this year.  

We throw away 155,000 tonnes of electricals a year, meaning e-waste constitutes a major threat to the environment and to human health. Resources are buried in landfill, which only encourages further mining for resources and associated environmental damage, without mentioning the concomitant climate damage caused by manufacturers.  There is also the socioeconomic cost of not distributing devices to individuals on lower incomes. We must discuss the recycling of our e-waste as a matter of imperative.  


Links to the Post-16 Vocational Curriculum 

here are two environmental units in BTEC Applied Science: Unit 2: Chemistry and our Earth introduces periodicity and sustainable development issues, such as recycling. Unit 4: Biology and the Environment looks at human impact on the environment and how we might address these problems. Ideas for lesson activities might include:     

  • Exploring where in the world these elements are mined. How are they extracted? 
  • Researching the reserves of these elements left for extraction. 
  • Surveying how many devices students have owned so far. 
  • Estimating how many they might use during their lifetimes.  
  • Challenging your students to find out how and where they can recycle their old electricals. 
  • Discussing how often should we replace our devices.  
  • Creating a manifesto for responsible usage of electronic devices. 

    Many post-16 level 3 courses run foundation units in Chemistry.  The first unit in BTEC Applied Science: Principles and Applications of Science I introduces periodicity. Alternative forms of the Periodic Table could provide an engaging way to investigate the less common elements and explore their uses. Compound Interest publishes amazing infographics on these elements for your students to research further. The earlier graphic by EuChemS also comes with teaching notes 

    The topic is an excellent introduction to the concepts of the synoptic Unit 7 Contemporary Issues in Science. This issue is an interesting springboard from which to examine the sources of all the stakeholders in different published formsfrom blogs and newspaper articles to research papers. Other activities could include 

    • Discussing the scientific issues at hand. 
    • Identifying the stakeholders that influence the issue- the consumers, mobile phone giants, mining companies, environmentalists, politicians?  
    • Discussing the environmental, political, socioeconomic and ethical aspects of e-waste. 
    • Writing about the issues for different audiences such as specialist technical audiences or the general public 
    • Investigating research and development into separation and retrieval of these precious elements or alternative elements for phones. 

      In the new T levels there is a huge section on health, safety and environmental legislation. The recent HSE legislation on disposal of waste electrical device would make for a pertinent case study. Compound Interest’s resource on mobile phone elements could be used to complement the core B science section on Materials and Chemical Properties. The RSC also has an interactive Periodic table that describes the properties of elements including supply risks. This interactive could be employed as a tool to explore the component elements of the mobile phone and is also conveniently available as an app.  


      Student Voice  

      Image from RSC digital pack  (Over half of 16–24 year olds have 10 or more electronic devices in their home, and these contain precious elements whose natural sources could soon run out. Find out more: #PreciousElements #IYPT2019 #Sustainability)

      Post-16 students have 
      most likely owned numerous devices already; they also have a vested interest in their future and an opinion that needs to be acknowledged.  This is enshrined UN Convention on the Rights of the ChildMobile phones, as well as the associated issues of finite resources and e-waste, provide a tangible link to Chemistry and the world on many levels.  A manifesto for education on environmental sustainability is being launched to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in November 2021; this manifesto is the first of its kind in the UK.  Post-16 students and educators are invited to sign up A Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability 

      Dr Alison Ackroyd, Lecturer, MidKent College

      Continue the conversation in the 11-19 Discussion group:   Earth Day resource share 


      RSC Digital Pack  

      EuChemS Periodic Table   

      EuChemS teaching notes  

      COVID-19 lockdowns lead to UK tech sales boom and adds to e-waste problem  

      Problems with e-waste   

      Compound Interest IYPT Elements   

      Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling (WEEE)  

      Compound Interest Chemical Elements of the Smartphone  

      RSC Interactive Periodic Table  

      United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child  

      A Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability