Here are three ways your smartphone is screwing up the planet

You’re not helping, Macron. Image: Getty.

Nearly five billion people worldwide will use a smartphone by 2020. Each device is made up of numerous precious metals and many of the key technological features wouldn’t be possible without them. Some, like gold, will be familiar. Others, such as terbium, are less well-known.

Mining these metals is a vital activity that underpins the modern global economy. But the environmental cost can be enormous and is probably far greater than you realise. Let’s walk through some of the key metals in smartphones, what they do, and the environmental cost of getting them out of the ground.

Catastrophic mine waste spills

Iron (20 per cent), aluminium (14 per cent) and copper (7 per cent) are the three most common metals by weight in your average smartphone. Iron is used in speakers and microphones and in stainless steel frames. Aluminium is used as a lightweight alternative to stainless steel and also in the manufacture of the strong glass used in smartphone screens. Copper is used in electric wiring.

However, enormous volumes of solid and liquid waste (termed mine “tailings”) are produced when extracting these metals from the earth. Typically, mine tailings are stored in vast impoundment structures that can be several square kilometres in area. Recent catastrophic mine tailings spills highlight the danger of improper construction methods and lax safety monitoring.

The largest spill on record occurred in November 2015 when a dam collapsed at an iron ore mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil, releasing approximately 33m cubic metres (enough to fill 23,000 Olympic swimming pools) of iron-rich waste into the River Doce. The waste inundated local villages killing 19 people and travelled 650km until it reached the Atlantic Ocean 17 days later.

The village of Bento Rodrigues was buried under toxic sludge. Image: Senado Federal/creative commons.

This was just one of 40 mine tailings spills that have occurred in the past decade and the long-term ecological and human health impacts remain largely unknown. One thing is clear though – as our thirst for technology increases, mine tailings dams are increasing in number and size, and so is their risk of failure.

Ecosystem destruction

Gold and tin are common in smartphones. But mining of these metals is responsible for ecological devastation from the Peruvian Amazon to the tropical islands of Indonesia.

Gold in smartphones is used primarily to make connectors and wires but gold mining is a major cause of deforestation in the Amazon. Furthermore, extraction of gold from the earth generates waste rich in cyanide and mercury – two highly toxic substances that can contaminate drinking water and fish, with serious implications for human health.

Illegal gold mining causes deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Image: Planet Labs Inc./creative commons.

Tin is used for soldering in electronics. Indium-tin oxide is applied to smartphone screens as a thin, transparent and conductive coating that gives touchscreen functionality. The seas surrounding Indonesia’s Bangka and Belitung Islands supplies about a third of the world’s supply. However, large-scale dredging of the seabed for the tin-rich sand has destroyed the precious coral ecosystem while the decline of the fishing industry has led to economic and social problems.


The most polluted place on the planet?

What makes your smartphone smart? That’ll be the rare earth elements – a group of 17 metals with weird names like praseodymium that are mined mostly in China, Russia and Australia.

Often dubbed “technology metals”, rare earths are fundamental to smartphone design and function. Crystal clear smartphone speakers, microphones and phone vibration are possible due to small yet powerful motors and magnets manufactured using neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium. Terbium and dysprosium are also used to produce the vibrant colours of a smartphone screen.

Extracting rare earths is a difficult and dirty business, typically involving the use of sulphuric and hydrofluoric acids and the production of vast amounts of highly toxic waste. Perhaps the most disturbing and thought provoking example of the environmental cost of our smartphone thirst is the “world’s tech waste lake” in Baotou, China. Created in 1958, this artificial lake collects the toxic sludge from rare earth processing operations.

The valuable metals used to manufacture smartphones are a finite resource. Recent estimates indicate we will run out of some rare earths in the next 20 to 50 years, which makes you wonder if smartphones will still be around then. Reducing the environmental impact of smartphone use requires manufacturers to increase product lifetimes, make recycling more straightforward and be open about where they source their metals and the environmental impact. Around the world mining companies have made huge strides in practising more sustainable mining. But we as consumers also need to consider smartphones as less of a throwaway item and more of a precious resource that carries an enormous environmental burden.

The Conversation

Patrick Byrne, Senior Lecturer in Geography, Liverpool John Moores University and Karen Hudson-Edwards, Professor in Sustainable Mining, University of Exeter.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.