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.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.