Forget your CARBON footprint, what about your KARMIC footprint? We have barely begun to assess the devastating environmental, social, and ethical effects of the life cycle of mobile phones and other electronic devices that rely on rare earth minerals.
The other day a friend was rather pridefully showing off the Prius they had just bought. I thought it was pretty cool that this person (who travels quite a bit) was actually excited about getting greener. We started joking about their carbon footprint, because they fly regularly, and obviously it’s hard to offset that by simply buying a car, which we acknowledged with a little humor. But then I said “what about your karmic footprint?”, which drew a perplexed look. I explained that as cool as a Prius is regarding energy consumption, it’s loaded with electronics and rare earth metals, and its parts must be made in at least a half-dozen countries. What about the labor conditions? The fuel used for transport? The environmental impact where the rare-earth metals were mined in China? My friend is a shamelessly ruthless capitalist, and although the biggest part of my carbon footprint is probably my cigarette smoking, I’m more of a hopeful realist than a teary-eyed treehugger, so the conversation got pretty interesting after that. We shifted the focus to other products, especially electronics, and agreed at the end that there was one product that packed more evil per pound than anything else in the world of consumerism: The Cell Phone. From the beginning to the end (and perhaps especially in the middle) of its life cycle (which is far too short) the cell phone does more human harm than any product ever imagined, with the exception, of course, of those produced for the military, which are intentionally designed to cause death, destruction, and suffering. This all sounds like hyperbole, but although the hard facts about environmental impacts aren’t in – and may never be unless China stops selling us rare earth minerals and we start making the things here – some basic numbers about volume of production and consumption are available, and they’re staggering. Just look at the figures below. If there’s someone you want to kill but you find the thought of ending a human life abhorrent, get over it. The impact of your lifetime cell-phone usage will probably accomplish the same thing, but at the expense of a total stranger.
Some Basic Numbers
There are over 5 billion cell phones in use worldwide.
1 trillion dollars in revenue was generated by the global mobile telecom industry in 2008.
80%: percentage of teens carry a wireless device, a 40% increase since 2004.
20% of consumers have cell phones which aren’t being used.
40% of consumers replaced their cell phones last year.
Cell phones in landfills leach more than 17 times the federal guidelines for hazardous waste.
Cell phone life span: 1.5 to 2.5 years, compared with 3-8 years for LCD monitors, or 3-4 years for computers.
130 million cell phones are retired in the U.S. per year, over 40 times more than in 1990.
65,000 tons of electronic garbage is created by cellphones per year.
An average phone contains about $1 in precious metals, mostly gold.
In 2007 the reclaiming giant Umicore estimated it received less than 1% of the world’s discarded phones.
An estimated 342,000 auto accident injuries are attributed to cellphone usage
An estimated 2,600 auto accident deaths are attributed to cellphone usage
Mining Rare Earths
The first step in securing rare earth minerals is obviously mining. Unfortunately, you have to do quite a bit of damage just to get at the ore you want. The image below is from the Daily Mail piece Inside China’s Secret Toxic Unobtainium Mine.
Extraction & Processing
The ores that contain the rare earth metals are mostly Iron, and only about 2% of the ore is the elements being sought. Extracting the elements is an elaborate process that combines mechanical, magnetic and chemical processes. The solvents and acids involved create a tremendous amount of toxic water waste. The image below is from the NYT piece After China’s Rare Earth Embargo, a New Calculus. It’s a resevoir outside the city of Baotou, China. It’s four square miles in area, surrounded by an earthen embankment four stories high, and holds a dark gray, slightly radioactive sludge laced with toxic chemical compounds.
Why the satellite view? This is in China. If you question these activities, you get beaten.
The entire manufacturing process for electronics involves the use of highly toxic chemicals, poor working conditions, and appalling waste management, especially when it comes to the sludge often dumped back into the local water supply. This is poorly documented, because sites are aggressively protected by both government and corporate officials. One of the best resources I found was Cutting Edge Contamination from Greenpeace, which is a detailed 80 page report examining the specific chemicals used, and the environmental consequences of their release in waste streams.
Usage & Consumption
The numbers here are astounding, and suggest that there’s no way we could possibly have an accurate assessment of how cell phones are affecting us in a broad sense. There are estimated to be over 5 billion cell phones in use right now. Although the jury is still out, Scientific American says the concern about brain cancer is legitimate. They also cause a considerable safety hazard when used while driving, and we’re all anecdotally familiar with the poor etiquette and often disruptive over-connectedness they bring to our lives. At the core of it all, companies like Verizon and AT&T have built their business model around absurd service charges, poor customer service, and rapid obsolescence, so we change phones almost yearly in spite of increasing monthly bills, binding contracts, and ridiculous dropped-call frequency. This topic could fill a book. But this is the internet, so here’s a pretty infographic instead, complete with bad grammar:
Well At Least You Recycle, Right?
Wrong. The recycling of electronic components is one of the most corrupt industries in the world. If you’re not up to speed on this, check out the 60 Minutes piece The Electronic Wasteland from 2008. Preview below.