The dirty secret behind your smartphone

In a culture of consumerism, we rarely ask where the products and things we consume come from, and how much they are damaging our environment.
Photo: Caroline Davis2010/ CC BY 2.0/ Flickr

In September this year, millions of excited customers around the world queued up to get their hands on the new iPhone 8. 

How many phones do you need?

In a 2017 survey on consumer behaviour by researchers Martinho, Magalhães, and Pires from the Nova University of Lisbon, it was found that in Portugal, on average, each person had 3.34 smartphones, including those in use, used, or broken, with the majority in use.

This device, a crucial component of most individual’s modern lives, is fuelling an industry wrought with negative environmental and human impacts, the industry of rare earth metals.

What are rare earth metals?

These are a set of seventeen metallic elements. They are not technically ‘rare’ but their geological distribution is such that there are relatively few places with deposits of rare earth-bearing minerals that are economical enough to mine.

Many of these elements form part of a wide range of products, from our common consumer products such as smartphones, computer hard drives, flat-screen monitors and magnets to even missile defence systems. They also form part of wind turbines, electric and hybrid vehicles and energy efficient refrigerators, making them a crucial component in the green energy revolution.

China’s toxic lake

For an illustration of the impacts of the rare earth industry, one needs to look no further than the city of Baotou in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, located in the north of the country, containing most of China’s border with Mongolia.

While there are over 850 known deposits of rare earth elements globally, China is the world’s largest producer. Approximately half of China’s production of rare earth metals (and around 70% of the world’s light rare earths) comes from Baotou, specifically the Bayan Obo deposit, which produces around 120,000 tons of rare earth metals a year.

Extraction and refining of rare earth metals result in a vast amount of poisonous waste as a by-product. According to an article by the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, Baotou’s rare earths enterprises produce 10 million tons of wastewater per year and this is pumped into tailings dams.

 

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The rare earth mine tailings from the Bayan Obo mine have created the world’s largest artificial lake, built in the 1950s. The Unknown Fields Division of the Architectural Association in London collected some samples of the waste from the lake and found that it tested at around three times the naturally-occurring background radiation that we are used to.

“The fish all died”

A report from the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security states that due to outdated technology, equipment, and procedures, the waste from the Bayan Obo mine often finds its way into the  Yellow River, which some 150 million people depend on for their water. According to a local source in the report, “In the Yellow River, in Baotou, the fish all died. They dump the waste – the chemicals into the river.”

Saleem Ali from the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at The University of Queensland, Australia, noted that for the residents of the town of Baotou, there were strong concerns about the thorium-containing waste as a source of radioactive contamination as well as the other non-radioactive contamination in the surrounding area.

Our green technology needs rare earth metals

Despite the industry’s negative environmental impacts, we will need rare earth metals in our future, not least in the green energy revolution.

In the 2015 study by Widmer, Martin and Kimiabeigi from the Centre for Advanced Electrical Drives at Newcastle University (UK), they remark that since the Hybrid Electric Vehicle became mainstream with the launch of the Toyota Prius in 1997, the use of rare earth magnets in vehicle traction motors has become common.

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In particular, the rare earth-based magnet Neodymium Iron Boron has offered significant performance benefits, not possible with other technologies, enabling the development of more compact and powerful electric traction motors. To avoid using rare earth metals would lead to inferior products and hinder several technological advances.

Implementing a more circular supply chain focusing on the reuse and recycling of the rare earth metals can mitigate much of the social and environmental impact of the sector.

Recycling is still limited though, and in 2011 it only made up 1% of supply. The cost of extraction of the rare earths from discarded consumer products and other hardware needs to be made more competitive. This is currently being densely researched in Japan, Europe, the US and elsewhere. Other research is also currently focused on seeking advanced composite materials that could in the future replace rare earth metals in electronic products.

Recycling is still limited though, and in 2011 it only made up 1% of supply. The cost of extraction of the rare earths from discarded consumer products and other hardware needs to be made more competitive. This is currently being densely researched in Japan, Europe, the US and elsewhere. Other research is also currently focused on seeking advanced composite materials that could in the future replace rare earth metals in electronic products.

There have been companies who are taking the lead in rare earth metal recycling in recent years. Japanese technology company Hitachi, Ltd. announced in 2010 that it has developed technologies for recycling rare earth magnets by separating and collecting them from end-of-life hard disk drive motors, air conditioners and other compressors.

In 2013, Japanese automobile manufacturer Honda established the world’s first process to reuse rare earth metals extracted from nickel-metal hydride batteries for use in new batteries. Apple announced in April 2017 that it plans to stop relying on mined rare earth minerals and metals to make their products, and wants to commit to only using recycled sources in the future.

How can consumers take action?

However, it’s not just up to the companies to make a change. As Ryan David Kiggins, a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, highlights in his book “The Political Economy of Rare Earth Elements”, citizens and consumers also have a key role to play in changing the industry practices.

An awareness of the potential impacts of purchasing habits needs to be instilled. Is the purchase of the latest mobile phone a necessity when the current model is still working perfectly fine? Is this eco-designed product really needed or can the same environmental impact be achieved with behavioural changes? Can this be recycled and how?

There is also the consumer power of boycotting and pressurising companies which are not stepping up in developing sustainable rare earth metal resource use. The consumer must play their part too.

Categories
Environment
Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.

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