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.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.