The environmental price of owning a smartphone
# Case I: Bayan Obo (Baotou City, Inner Mongolia, China)
Rare-earth mining in China comes at a heavy cost for local villages
According to USGS, Bayan Obo, in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China, is thought to be the world’s largest rare earth element (REE) (with 15 REEs among which niobium, neodymium, lanthanum, and cerium are found in higher percentages) deposit—it is estimated to contain about 800 million metric tons of ore material. As such China is the biggest producer of REEs in the world, producing more than 60% of the world’s total rare earth elements (2019).
Radioactive toxic waste from mining at Bayan Obo combined with improperly lined tailings grounds has turned communities around the dam into “cancer villages”. This tailings dam is still growing in size. For the Yellow River which flows only 10 kilometers away, it is a ticking time bomb that could spell an environmental and social disaster. Any leakage from the tailings dam of contaminated water, soil, or dust may pollute drinking water and put at risk the health of millions of people who rely on the Yellow River watershed.
"Long tooth disease" (Fluorosis) and "Snake disease" (Chronic arsenic toxicity) as they are called in local parlance, are the common ailments that afflict the residents of Bayan Obo, the 'hometown of rare earth'. Long, brittle teeth in livestock due to fluorosis hamper their grazing and lead to death due to starvation. Humans develop skeletal fluorosis which manifests in the form of muscle shrinkage, deformed joints, long bones and spinal column. The discoloration and scaling that occurs in hands, faces, feet, and genitals in people due to severe arsenic poisoning is called the 'Snake Disease".
According to a study published in Biological Trace Element Research, REE accumulation occurs due to long-term environmental and occupational exposure, accompanied by a low level of iron and calcium on account of competitive binding of REEs, which together induce bone metabolism disorders, and further reduce bone mineral density (BMD).
Tonnes and tonnes of rare earths are often illegally mined, traded, and trafficked out of China.
# Case II: Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Africa
Is your phone tainted by the misery of the 35,000 children in Congo's mines?
The two southern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): Lualaba and Haut-Katanga, home to several industrial-scale copper-cobalt mines operated by a mix of state-owned, Chinese, and multinational companies, produce around 60% of the global cobalt production.
The DRC (eastern Congo) is also an important producer of tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold (the so-called ‘3TG’).
According to a report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO)
Many thousands of men, women and children work in atrocious conditions and for little pay in the unregulated, artisanal mines. Levels of insecurity are high, and violent clashes with the police occur regularly. The formal mining industry, controlled by Congolese state-owned and foreign companies, is associated with labour rights violations, community conflicts and land grabs. The industry as a whole creates considerable environmental damage, including biodiversity loss and deforestation, air pollution, and contamination of water with toxic and radioactive elements.
Children as young as 7 years often enter the tunnels (which are unstable and can cave in at any moment) to collect the ores containing cobalt and copper and wash them to separate the required metals, without any proper equipment and masks to protect them from the toxic dust.
Not only are the miners exposed to the medley of toxic metals and dust while mining, the landslides, and underground fires, but also the communities that live near the cobalt mines are exposed to various hazardous elements through the foods they eat as dust from mines can settle on the ground, in crops and also pollute nearby rivers -thus pollution the whole nearby eco-system.
Now you may be wondering what is the relation between Bayan Obo, DRC, and smartphones?
From basic phone calls to video calls to gaming to ticket bookings to financial transactions to navigation to business building and promotions to access to unlimited knowledge resources to the latest news, smartphones have become an inseparable part of our daily lives.
According to the website bankmycell.com, about 91.54% of the world's population owns a mobile phone (which includes both feature phones and smartphones) in 2022; and 83.72% of the world's population are smartphone owners. Most cell phone subscribers are from countries like China, India, the US, Brazil, and Russia.
Some of the vital elements used in these smartphones are rare earth elements (REEs) that are included in the 'endangered list' by scientists. As per the Royal Society of Chemistry, these elements are becoming increasingly scarce due to over-extraction (for usage in phones, TVs, laptops, rechargeable batteries, green technologies, and others) despite their limited supplies, increased use, lack of recycling, their location in conflict zones, and the environmental impacts they cause. Moreover, since the process to extract these REEs is tough, starting new mines mean more earth-damaging acid concentrations, an increase in mobility of radioactive and other toxic elements, and unwanted chemical by-products.
To mark the 150th Mendeleev periodic table anniversary (2019), the European Chemical Society (EuChemS) released a version of the periodic table (below) that highlights the elements that are most at risk over the coming decades.
An infographic (below) from Visual Capitalist shows in detail the rare earth elements (critical) used in various parts of a smartphone.
As can be seen from the infographics above, a major part of the smartphone constitution is dependent on REEs and the batteries on Cobalt.
Apart from the social and environmental impacts these REEs and other elements cause, it is also important to remember that they are not limitless. Unrestrained mining of these metals has already shifted many of them to the 'endangered list', especially gold, arsenic, indium, and tantalum which can run out in the next 100 years.
A report by the UN's Global e-waste monitor 2020 predicts that
Global e-waste – will reach 74 Mt by 2030, almost a doubling of e-waste in just 16 years. This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fueled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few options for repair. Only 17.4 per cent of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled. This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US $57 billion – a sum greater than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries – were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.
Also, while our fingers happily nimble away on our smartphone screens, there is a good chance that the metals in our phones have been mined by a seven-year-old, or lives have been lost during the mining of those metals, or our products contain illegally mined and trafficked elements.
How can we help?
Send our old and retired smartphones to e-waste recycling centers instead of hoarding them in our homes so that the elements can be recovered for further use
Repair our phones in case of any functionality problem instead of replacing it. In this case, the smartphone companies should also manufacture phones that are easily repairable instead of replacing the entire phone
Stop replacing our phones after every two years or less because a new model has hit the market. We can replace our phones after five years (if they are functioning well) so that there is optimal usage of all elements and then hand them over for recycling.
Recycling should be scaled with advanced technologies to make elemental recovery easier
Smartphone companies should stop manufacturing and offering products with planned obsolescence and ensure a longer lifecycle of products with the capability of taking advanced software updates with time.
The retailers can introduce take-back schemes so that customers can recycle their phones easily in a safe way
Governments can enforce a circular economy by providing the required infrastructure
Also, the development of advanced recovery technologies like phytomining, bioleaching, and biohydrometallurgy can help in recovering dispersed rare earth elements without the disastrous environmental impacts.