When Americans buy the latest upgraded phone or tablet as continually urged by profit-seeking technology companies, they should ask forgiveness for the toxic environmental devastation to which they are contributing. Look at places like Baotou in China and feel the shame.
The largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia, Baotou has grown from 97,000 in 1950 to over 2 1/2 million in 2015 thanks to rare earth minerals. The streets are built extra wide to accommodate the huge diesel-belching coal trucks. The roads are lined with the trucks waiting to turn into the coal-burning power plants beside the new apartment towers. After rains, the roads are flooded with water blackened by coal dust.
In between half finished towers and hastily built multi-story parking decks are burning refinery towers end electricity pylons. Massive pipes from the Baogang refineries complex run from the ground along the roads and sidewalks crossing over like bridges. The air is filled with the sulfur odor. Remember the smell of old paper mill days in the United States?
One processing plant specializes in producing the rare earth mineral cerium. This plant produces mainly cerium oxide for polishing smartphone and tablet touchscreens. But in Tim Maughan’s account of his plant tour, there are mazes of pipes, tanks, and centrifuges in the hangar-like rooms, but no activity. The guide says it is closed for maintenance, but there are no maintenance crews or repairs being done either. A member of his party suggests the local industry is controlling cerium oxide scarcity to keep rare earth prices high as was reported in China by Xinhua in 2012.
Another Baotou rare earth plant is for neodymium. Its most important use is probably in lightweight but powerful magnets for consumer electronics–earbuds, cellphone microphones, and computer hard-drives. In larger sizes they are used in “green” products like wind farm turbines and motors for electric cars.
Both neodymium and cerium are relatively common despite the rare earth moniker. Neodymium is fairly evenly distributed in the earth’s crust and no rarer than copper or nickel. China produces 90 percent of neodymium globally despite having only 30 percent of the world’s deposits, mainly because other countries are not willing to be home to the hazardous, toxic environments processing the minerals creates. Cerium is extracted by dissolving crushed mineral mixtures in sulfuric and nitric acid on a huge industrial scale with lots of poisonous waste byproduct.
About 20 minutes outside Baotou is a horrifying artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge. It is a tailings pond created by damming a river and flooding farm land, another byproduct of consumer electronics and green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars. Maughan describes the scene. “Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.”
Another member of Tim Maughan’s Unknown Fields party, Liam Young, collected waste clay samples from the lake to test in the United Kingdom and found it has around three times background radiation. Young explains Unknown Fields’ plan for the waste. “We are using this radioactive clay to make a series of ceramic vessels modeled on traditional Ming vases, each proportioned based on the amount of toxic waste produced by the rare earth minerals used in a particular tech gadget.” This will illustrate the consumer goods’ environmental impacts which can be thousands of miles away and ignored by purchasing consumers.
Watch the video to see the mining being done in the Mojave Desert in the United States. It is not only China that is being devastated. Think twice before voting with purchasing dollars on those gadgets creating such toxic blights on the earth. Is that latest Apple watch with rare earth minerals really needed? View the website for an eye-opening experience of the harm these products are doing.