A man taking a selfie in front of a toxic waste outflow pipe

Shiny Metals, Dirty Consequences: The Toxic Truth Behind Rare Earth Elements In The Palm Of Your Hands

Group 10

You are reading this article thanks to 16 of the 17 rare earth metals found in smartphones and laptops, but may not be aware of the consequences of using such metals…

Rare earths are essential to modern life and the future of green technology such as wind turbines and catalytic converters.

95% of rare earths are supplied by China with questionable health and environmental impacts.

Is it ethical to support damaging practices for the sake of modern technology?

Toxic Processes

The mining and extraction of rare earths from their ores is energy intensive and hazardous, involving leaching with strong acids and alkalis. Considering Baotou (Inner Mongolia), locals inhale acidic fumes, toxic process residues, and particulates from coal power plants fueling the industry. Dozens of pipes discharge a black sludge of chemical waste from surrounding refineries into the lake, transforming its waters into a cocktail of toxic chemicals and radioactive material which, can cause leukemia and other cancers. Due to soil and groundwater saturated with toxins, vegetables no longer grow and farm animals no longer survive in the barren toxic wasteland.

Rare Earths are distributed worldwide, however China dominates production, this market dominance is due to a willingness to dismiss the environmental and safety requirements in order to produce profitable goods. The conditions at Baotou and across China would surely never be allowed to exist in Europe, Australia or the USA, yet the metals are ubiquitous in our society.

Generally, the mining industry has a precedent for taking advantage of developing regions; promising social and economic development but at the expense of local community health and environment – for instance, BHP Billiton in Columbia and Brazil.

Deontological ethics promote the human duty to consider what is morally right through simple reasoning, independent of external norms. Applying this to rare earths, surely it is morally unacceptable support irresponsible mining in other countries to fuel our technology addiction?

Simply Not Sustainable

Global rare earth consumption is currently around 155,000 tons/year, with expected future growth aligned with increasing demands for technology innovations including wind power and electric cars.

Rare earths, like oil and gas reserves, are not infinite resources – Continuous devouring of rare earth resources to continuously produce innovative hi-tech items with little consideration for recycling is not sustainable. Modern upgrade mentality of consumers and manufactures is not respectful of the earth’s resources. Furthermore, most current extraction processes in China such as Baotou are not environmentally sustainable as water and land resources are polluted as a result. As demand grows so will negative environmental impact unless procedures change.

We as consumers, should strive to live virtuously and be aware of the broader impacts of the devices we so readily use and replace without a second thought. Ignorance is not an excuse! In order to sustain current technological advancements, we must demand responsibly sourced metals and encourage the recovery and recycling of resources.

Dirty lake, cleaner world

We will assume the arguments for mitigating climate change, and renewable technologies, are known by readers (NASA have helpful resources if not). But the ethical and physical waters become murky as we implement renewables, electric cars, and catalytic converters. On environmental grounds, why continue to use such technologies? Considering the ethical framework of utilitarianism (where the best option is that which maximises gain, with the minimum amount of suffering), compelling arguments are abundant.

Mining regions may see negative environmental effects, however the effects of climate change are already being experienced for these regions, thus it can be argued that the residents are overall benefiting from the contribution to the development of green technologies.

Line of Wind TurbinesExtending utilitarianism to a global scale, the argument becomes even more apparent: billions of people benefit from the adoption of green technology – through reductions in air pollution from coal power and a lack of catalytic converters, elimination of future nuclear waste, fewer communities displaced by climate change, and the myriad other effects humanity will face should we fail to tackle climate change. We must ask: would halting production to benefit a few thousand people really be the best option compared to the suffering the alternative would cause the soon to be 10 billion citizens on Earth?

Ingredients for Innovation

Without rare earths, technologies which underpin our lives today, such as computers and mobiles would cease to exist. Press pause and think back to when you had a completely technology free day. Can’t remember? Neither can I… How would you be able to read this article without technology?

The ever-growing demand for technology has allowed China’s economy to grow significantly as it enjoys a monopoly in the rare earth market with mining towns, such as Baotou, seeing the creation of thousands of jobs and large influxes of people.

Not only have rare earth technologies enhanced China’s economic growth, they have improved education of less understood topics on a global scale.  For example, Blue Planet II has initiated a buzz of concern for our oceans as an average of 10.3 million viewers turned on their TVs – which, you guessed it, contain rare earths. Furthermore, rare earth technology enables communications and security, such as satellites, which allow us to converse with people around the world and governments to track ‘bad guys’. The fact that modern life relies so heavily on these technologies means global progress could not be sustained were we to stop production – is that the world we want?

The Solution?

Considering a utilitarian perspective, rare earths are necessary for green technology to reduce climate change and pollution worldwide and for vital communications technology. Despite impacts on those near mines, the advantages make it acceptable.

However, moving forward, practices must change such as through:

  • Recycling the limited resources.
  • Reducing amounts used, for example Toyota cut neodymium in electric-motor magnets by 20%.
  • Responsible manufacturing from supply to production: phasing out old model functionality to encourage consumption is unacceptable.

Consumer awareness: discouraging our upgrade mentality.

47 thoughts on “Shiny Metals, Dirty Consequences: The Toxic Truth Behind Rare Earth Elements In The Palm Of Your Hands

  1. A very interesting article which resonates with everyone reading, I am sure. It is difficult to look beyond our comfort zone and consider the true cost of the technology we depend on today.

    The article seems to have a practical and almost positive tone towards the end, arguing that these rare earth metals are essential to ensure a sustainable future in terms of green energy for instance.

    However, the utilitarian view is a dangerous argument; we can tell ourselves such positive notions in order to sugar the pill and tolerate the ethical violation. Looking towards a better future for the planet whilst simultaneously destroying it in the process makes no sense to me.

    There should simply be greater controls and improved process. It is not impossible to deal with hazardous waste correctly, just more expensive. There must be ways to obtain these ores without the devastating pollution as a consequence, and if the local and national government does not wish to swallow the costs associated with such changes then the hi-tech manufacturers and consumers have the responsibility to do so.

    I agree with solutions presented, this issue can be managed, I just worry that we, the collective we in the broadest sense, simply do not care enough to force a real change?
    The change needed to keep up with the growing demand.

  2. I feel that whilst it has been put well that the mining serves a “greater good”, the practices themselves must change. The desire for the metals is driven by us, the consumers who are becoming ever more attached to technology and ever more environmentally aware. As such the costs associated with cleaning the processes and waste management are economically viable. No car manufacturer wants to be far behind in the electric push, no energy supplier wants to be the last clinging on to fossils and Joe bloggs won’t have a phone more than 4 years old. Whilst it can be argued the increase costs will filter down to the consumer which could decrease demand and destabilise the industry, I feel it is a cost the manufacturers and retailers could/should take on the chin. Especially true for the mobile phone market where the current mark up by some companies such as Apple and Samsung is astronomical.

    Aside from my two cents, great article with a logical flow made it very easy to follow your argument! I see bright things in your futures…

    1. I agree with your views and no one wants to fall behind as technology advances but using less and considering where resources should be best used is perhaps a point to consider. Clearly innovation and advancement in green technology is essential to the future of the planet but is the desire for Joe blogs to upgrade his phone every few years an acceptable mentality to promote?
      Philip93 raises an interesting point below – and perhaps it is due to this society we now find ourselves in, we cannot help but want to upgrade, it is what is expected of us now and with companies like Apple bringing our software updates making old models redundant it is hardly a choice for us? Manufacturers and the hi-tech advancing culture force the upgrade mentality upon us and therefore for some aspects such as mobile phones, is there room for improvement regarding the common attitudes? Does the ‘out with the old, in with the new inspire innovation or cause needless disruption? .
      I agree it does just boil down to the cost associated with better practices, and this is why China still dominates. But there is room for better practices and use of resources across the globe in Australia and the US but these cannot be competitive until the cost is swallowed and the manufacturers/retailers must take it on the chin, they have a responsibility to improve the practices in their supply chain.
      But as well as the manufacturers/retailers, surely the ever growing environmentally aware consumers cannot claim ignorance have as excuse and indeed have the power to influence a change in the manufactures stance?

  3. The problem does not stem from with wind turbines or electric vehicles, the problem derives from Mark Zuckerburg, Steve Jobs and the narcissistic culture created by social media. The invention of social media has fuelled consumerism which has in turn fuelled the people’s narcissistic traits. The constant need to get new phone because, your friend got a slightly newer model or it is running a little slowly or the battery doesn’t last as long. Put your phone down, stop being so shallow by trying to impress people you don’t know or see. Your life is clearly so empty and you are so shallow that you think I care about you.

    The perception that you need a new outfit because people will notice on Facebook photos that I wore that outfit last year is ridiculous. NEWS FLASH nobody cares about your life that much!!

    The need for social media recognition to give your life meaning or real fulfilment tells me your brain has not developed sufficiently to see beyond your own selfish needs and your constant need for verification in your life provided by strangers and other hollow robots is ruining the planet for people significantly less fortunate than you!

  4. A very interesting article, about a topic that probably not many people know about, despite benefiting from its products every day.

    A good point was made about BHP Biliton’s track record (and those of other mining companies), and it is useful to consider the practices of those who purchase the rare earths too. Siemens, for example, who manufacture wind turbines and phones, state in their Code of Conduct that their principles include:
    Environmental Protection, Supply Chain, and Responsible Minerals Sourcing.
    Steps seems to have been made in these, by choosing Molycorp for their rare earth supply based on their human and environmental record, an applaudable effort.

    But for the current conditions in Baotou to exist, many companies must still be purchasing from irresponsible suppliers. Some onus should surely be placed on them as well as the mining companies and end-users – legal sanctions, boycotts, or the simple act of negative publicity from “naming and shaming” could help this, if governments or the public were to take more interest in holding electronics companies to account.

  5. I think this is a very thought-provoking article, highlighting some key issues that are often ignored in society today. I say this as I type on the very piece of equipment (my phone) they suggest is part of the problem.

    I agree with the points that maintain that the methods used globally today, and especially in China, to gain access to rare earth metals are indeed unsustainable. With the rate places like China are extracting and growing and developing, they are in fact ignoring the past mistakes that already developed nations, like the United Kingdom, made in their industrial revolutions. The UK became a highly polluted nation, with many people failing to see 50 from the toxins and illnesses caused from the vast factory and mining exploits, simply because the aim was to be as fast and cheap as possible. Therefore, when China is mining and extracting these metals,though through slightly more successful means to meet huge demands, this presented them with an opportunity to improve regulation and development so as to improve upon the technology it created. For example, if mining for those rare earths to make my mobile phone were to be through more environmentally sustainable ways, there would be less concern about the consequences of what happens when it eventually comes to the end of life, as the whole carbon footprint and safety aspect of the life cycle of that phone will be less. Moreover, as the article correctly points out, carbon footprint is also not the only issue but potential for polluting the water table is a huge problem, as water is becoming a more valuable resource every single day.

    To conclude, I like the recommendations the article provides, that stopping using our technology is not the answer, but refining and enhancing more environmentally effective and efficient methods of production and development will see us through.

  6. “Despite impacts near mines, the advantages make it acceptable” – simply because it is not in your back garden, you will not see it, so why care about it?

    Meanwhile, the lack of recycling that we do with mobiles, laptops and other electronics goods means that the majority ends up in landfill resulting in the same metals poisoning us.

    Furthermore technologies in gasification (a technique in reducing the quantity of waste put into landfill) produces ash that still ends up in landfill. These rare earth metals pass though the process and reside in the ash. When the demand for these metals has risen it maybe cost effective to mine the ash thus potentially poisoning ourselves as well as the original miners.

    The fact is that we should get off our addiction to these rare metals is the logical choice!

  7. Firstly, I think most people are aware, to some degree, about the detrimental impact their mobile phones have. Even if it’s not evident, a lot of nice things we as a society enjoy have come to us in some not-very-nice means and the components of our mobile phones are no exception to this. We are ½ of the problem.

    I agree the idea of changing our society’s consumer mentality holds a lot of promise. Ignorance is most definitely “not an excuse”, however, actually changing societal attitudes is a far greater task than it sounds. Educating both old and young about recycling, the life cycles of their tech and the conditions in these mining regions will be beneficial, but it only goes so far.

    As for China, the methods and legislation surrounding their mining techniques could certainly use improvements, but somebody has to do it. Rare earth production isn’t going to just ‘stop’. Somebody is always going to pick up where they left off and try and make as much money as possible. China, being such a super economy, should invest in clean-up technologies and mitigation strategies to create the least detriment possible. Manufactures and the companies that use and sell these rare earth-containing products also need to be held accountable for what it is they are doing. Personally, I don’t think this will happen; far too many examples about major companies being ‘naughty’, whether it’s the Volkswagen emission fiddling or recently unfolding Facebook data scandal. With great power comes great responsibility? …… maybe not when it comes to the big players.

    Technology isn’t inherently ‘bad’ and you are not a ‘narcissist’ because you use social media. Technology saves lives, connects loved ones all around the world and allows us to explore so many things we would be left in the dark about without this amazing tool. I agree with the adoption of utilitarian ethics; although mining has negative environmental impacts, many more will benefit from future clean technologies. There is no way to “go back” and introduce technology into our everyday lives in a way that minimises our current dependence. We must look to the future with a conscience and enough financial commitment to make positive and sustainable changes in the mining of rare earth metals.

  8. It’s an interesting article that highlights a growing problem in many areas of the world. We should all take the time to think about how we can reduce the footprint we leave behind us especially with regard to our personal technology. We should support products that recycle rare materials and encourage companies to act responsibly. We as consumers must change our attitude as a collective, perhaps if something is working fine it doesn’t need replacing but if it does, speak with your wallet and choose something sustainable.

  9. Awesome article! Especially fascinating application of philosophical systems to environmental issues, I think if more people had a knowledge of basic ethics they’d be more inclined to care about these issues and act rationally in approaching them.

  10. I think your point about having to innovate within a sustainable resource based periphery is a good one, meaning that industry needs to work on utilising resources other than rare earth metals. I think it’s also inteeesting to consider further as has been mentioned above, how to persuade consumers and brands to buy into this. Is it through government regulation? Forcing brands to provide some kind of environmental clearance or standard to their products to avoid taxation? I think while the option to upgrade our possessions exists within capitalist culture, it’s hard to otherwise change behaviour. Also useful to consider the length of time it takes environmental policy to make a difference – often longer than a political term – how to make this an issue that sits within the centre of what the public want to vote for so it becomes sustainably politically attractive?

  11. Interesting article, and some serious food for thought. I agree that simply ceasing production is not the optimal solution here. It made me think about Britain’s Industrial Revolution – technological advancement with serious environmental / health costs. Ultimately, the downsides of any positive advancements should be mitigated as far as possible through continued research and efforts to improve underlying processes. It’s easy to point the finger at developing economies and claim that their priorities are economical, but China is actually investing heavily now in green initiatives – they are learning quickly (much faster than us Westerners in the context of history) that if they don’t look after their environment, everything else could be in vain!

  12. Very interesting article raising points that I was previously unaware of. Unfortunately we are living in a world driven by consumerism. It’s easier than ever to own the latest iPhone, get an Audi on finance, so many goods are advertised by the ability to pay monthly or even ‘pay nothing now, pay later.’ Apple offers the option to ‘rent’ out the latest iPhone and give it back at the end of the contract. There’s an option for everyone meaning more and more people are able to afford and own expensive technologies that they perhaps weren’t able to.

    Changing the consumer mindset is key. But if technology companies keep producing upgrades every year, this is only going to fuel the consumer addiction for the latest and greatest. It is a difficult debate as companies are always striving to be the best and create amazing new things – surely it wouldn’t be right to discourage this. I do believe in advancement of technology as it can do great things but this advancement needs to be responsible and as sustainable as can be. I believe consumer mindset has changed towards plastics as we are now seeing a huge push for ‘plastic free.’ This is largely due to tighter government regulations which I think is what needs to be imposed on technology like that described in the article, supporting recycling and reusing etc.

  13. I would be curious to know what percentage of the rare earths can be recovered from smart phones and TVs. It’s sad to realise that a lot of e waste will end up in dumps in Africa. We really need to get these metals back. And also is quite worrying that we’re completely at the mercy of China to get these metals, so that we have to overlook environmental violations and nasty working conditions for us to get our phones. Also, phones seem to be designed to last for a couple of years only. Maybe is not that we want an upgrade, the phone simply stops working…

  14. A good article; I like the fact you provided possible solutions too. There does seem a simple solution in terms of rare earth recycling, which surely must become more financially viable as scarcity increases.

    Is the issue consumerism, when there is such a strong geographic bias? Or is it poor regulation by the producer of 97% of global stocks.

    On a simple level, I’m against anything that limits our capacity to feed ourselves. The quote: “”Before the factories were built, there were just fields here as far as the eye can see. In the place of this radioactive sludge, there were watermelons, aubergines and tomatoes,” says Li Guirong with a sigh.” makes me sad. Much the same as when I look at my old childhood atlas and see how big the Aral Sea was (or the Dead Sea was for that matter).

    There are compelling reasons for using rare earths, but their scarcity should be encouraging us to adopt more devices that use them more efficiently, and allow us to recycle them more effectively.

    There is a good ethical balance to your arguments, but do have a look at this issue wtih regards to Care Ethics and Virtue Ethics too.

  15. Very interesting article, and not covered issues I had not fully considered until now. Like most environmental issues, knowledge and awareness are key, and articles like this are a good starting point. From a consumer’s point of view, it would be very difficult to return to a more primitive way of life, and thus preserving our rare earths, having creating this technological world we now live in. The balance of developing technologies to save the planet vs the damage the same technology creates is an unsteady one. One area of focus is surely on battery technology. We shouldn’t have to ‘upgrade’ our phones every two years (or less) because the battery can no-longer sustain it’s life. The waste we produce in electronics is shocking and puts a great strain on our rare earths.

  16. Bit of a chicken and egg situation you’ve identified here. On the one hand, the current industry for rare earths is disastrously unsustainable – but sustainable processing requires vast technological advancement that is also unsustainable.

    At some point, some “necessary evil” has to occur to break the cycle, otherwise we stagnate and slowly die out as natural resources run low. If that means mining like they currently do in China, then providing the result of it is technological advancement leading to more environmentally friendly processes, it can be justified and utilitarianism wins over every time. What can’t be justified is the degradation of the environment and human life in the name of samsung/apple using astronomical amounts of rare-earth for a slightly bigger screen and fancy camera – In this case, the deontological aspects must be seen as the biggest issue.

    Personally, I favour technological development and therefore the utilitarian side of things, but the disregard of major industry towards the environment is alarming, if not unsurprising and the consumerism aspect behind it requires addressing.

  17. A well-structured article that considers issues I didn’t know much about.

    When we talk about climate change and the environment it tends to be a few high-publicity issues that spring to mind – vehicle emissions, use of fossil fuels, single-use plastics, etc. ‘Rare earths’ is not a term I’d ever heard before and ignorance is one of the biggest boundaries to solving the problems our planet faces.

    As well, this is a complicated issue that is perhaps harder to solve than any of ones mentioned above. Nobody wants to breathe air filled with car fumes, so reducing them or making them less harmful makes sense. We are going to run out of fossil fuels, so finding alternatives makes sense.

    But everyone needs and wants technology, and when you don’t know much about their production is easy to think that a smartphone or a new laptop isn’t so bad. You only get a one every few years so it’s not as bad as binning a plastic bottle every day, right? And technology is now second nature and difficult to escape. For my job, I have to use my smartphone to log in to my work account. I can’t keep the same smartphone until it literally stops functioning because the smartphone companies update the software past the point of older models being able to use it. The older software won’t have the most up to date security software and so my work’s tech security won’t accept it. This is just one issue amongst many.

    There are no easy answers to this problem but I think the one that you propose is perhaps the most practical – we have to continue mining for rare earths in the short term in order to allow us to move away from them in the long term, but improve conditions and practises as much as we can in the meantime.

  18. Great article and I particularly valued the introduction which set the tone for the article and gave some much needed perspective on this unfashionable issue.

    Although I agree with the point that consumers should take responsibility for its role in the technology, the scope must go beyond this. Consumers alone are not sufficiently informed or empowered to enact this change without government and popular support. I would encourage similar legislation to that seen in the diamond industry (Kimberley Process) and look to certify technology sustainable or responsibly sourced.

    Considering Kant’s universality principle when judging the utilitarian argument is vital, and certain highlights some of flaws in this viewpoint. If we were to employ the damaging methods seen in the rare earth metal industry worldwide, there would be rapid degradation of resources. I think the validity of potential options should always be measured against this powerful yardstick!

    Overall great article to bring attention to such a pressing issue.

  19. A really interesting article shown by the interesting reaction in reading the comments. Even as a (fairly) well-read engineering student I have never heard this important problem being discussed so it was a very interesting article for me.

    One thing that concerned me was the utilitarianism argument stating that because the mining of these metals helps billions of people we shouldn’t be bothered about the consequences on a couple thousand people.
    For me, it becomes a bit dangerous when the issue is made so black and white.
    Of course if this was the only option to enable green technologies then this argument would be relevant but when safe practice is an option this trade-off shouldn’t be considered.

    However, you seemed to address this at the end when considering the solution.

  20. While I found the article well written and very informative, and I can appreciate the complex ethical issues that are involved, I would say I’m probably in the majority in that I value my tech too much to let it bother me.

    In the end I think the companies that manufacture the tech should take more responsibility for the welfare of the people involved.

  21. This is a very thought provoking article. On the one hand, all technology development are depending on the rare earth metal. It is very hard to imagine to live in a world without all the convenience we have access to now. On the other hand, the way how these rare earth metal being unearthed is not acceptable by any standards in any developed country is terrifying.
    I believe this should not be treated as a black and white question. There must be a way that a joint force among consumers, companies, media outlets and local producers to find a mutual ground where development is not hindered while human rights are protected.
    However, I would like to point out the alarming argument from the utilitarian approach of keep producing the rare earth metal for the benefit of larger amount of people. This reminds of the famous paradox introduced when discussing about the AI ethics: do you push the chubby guy down the bridge to stop the train or do you do nothing to watch the other five guy laying on the rail to be run over. Of course different people will come up with different answers. However, for me, all human life are immeasurably valuable. I would certainly not sacrifice thousands of people now just for the sake of other people regardless of how many people there would be.
    Ultimately, I do agree with the article on recycling more and producing less. If careful evaluation are performed and groundwork laid , I think we do not have to kill to save.

  22. This is a very eye-opening article highlighting issues which are rarely publicised. I must admit that when I buy a new mobile I do not consider the resource availability for the components inside the phone. However, every time I print something out I am wary of the impact it is having on the environment. Now I am asking myself why this is the case.

    First and foremost, we are living in an age of ever growing technology which is controlled by the likes of Apple and Samsung. These companies continue to bring out new gadgets year on year, when coupled with social media, put pressure of society to keep up with the trends in fear of falling behind.

    I am guilty of wanting a new phone every two years when my contract runs out when in reality my current phone is working perfectly well. However, like many others I want the latest technology at my fingertips.

    I believe the problem starts with education. We are clearly not taught about the vast use of rare metals because they are highly useful and relied upon. However, it is my belief that more effort has to be put into reducing the use of rare earth metals, whilst providing more accessible recycling schemes for old gadgets which we no longer use.

    Technology plays a significant role in the development of all countries. However, this should not be done on such a scale that it has negative impacts on lesser developed countries.

    As I mentioned the route cause of these issues are education. We need to stop being so complacent and allowing ourselves to be sucked in social media and corporate giants. If everybody, every company, every business took a moment to think about their use of rare earth metals and developed ways of reducing their usage this would make a difference and would be a step in the right direction.

    Once again, this article raises a significantly important issue which needs addressing worldwide and is the education we all need.

  23. Great article, it was very enlightening. I knew that the mass production of technology had negative side-effects but did not realise the extent of the damage. I agree with all the methods of improvements but the reduction in neodymium by 20% seems like a huge ask.

  24. This is a really good read. When faced with the statistics it is easy to see that the use of rare earths is unsustainable. It’s funny because everyone uses a this technology but we are rarely exposed to the realities of their impact on society. In fact I only had knowledge on this area recently from Amnesty’s reports on child labour exploitation and socioeconomic impacts that mining rare earths has. I have never been faced with the environmental impacts so this has been quite useful.
    Another solution I could suggest however, which is something I have been working on, is the use of simulations to find alternatives to rare earths. I am aware that at the moment within the scientific community there has been a drive to reduce the use of rare earths in semi conductors for example. Instead of running experiments on physical materials used in semiconductors, some scientists have been using finite element modelling to simulate different material properties and only resort to the actual materials when absolutely necessary.
    Now I see the significance of this approach.

  25. A thought provoking examination of the processes that go into making the black mirror in my pocket. As commendable as it is to hope that companies will bend the knee to corporate social responsibility I can’t help but feel that this is a slightly naive view to take. Especially in such a intensely competitive globalised world where even if most companies sign up to some moral codes of practices there will always be some that will resist in order to increase profit margins. That being said there is definitely some merits to educating the public on these lesser known issues. For instance after the recent blue planet 2 series national papers begun campaigns against cotton buds and plastic straws and are now hoping to put it to lawmakers. However much larger international efforts will need to be taken for real change to occur.

  26. This was a very interesting read. I agree with the article and the majority of commentators in that it seems to me a big portion of the problem lies with the consumerist culture which is unlikely to change in the near future unless there is a serious shift in people’s priorities. It’s been proven time and again that few people uphold very high morals in terms of shopping proved by the success of high street fast fashion outlets known to be using sweat shops which still see huge profits year on year so, although I think increased awareness and education about the environmental effects of the extraction process of rare earth elements could only be positive thing in terms of this, I think that tackling the upgrade mentality would be extremely challenging and a long process.

  27. This article is very insightful. I definitely was not aware that all of my technology contained all of these rare earth metals. Obviously I understand the importance of modern day technology as it is vital to every day life now. At the same time, understanding the environmental impact of our own actions is very important.

    The fact that China does not adhere to the strict health and environmental regulations that a lot of other major countries do is unacceptable. Sustainable mining and extraction of rare earths could solve a multitude of problems raised in this article, however the greed of the average person with regard to technology nowadays is unfathomable. To me it is simple: if you are affecting the earth, change it.

    With rare earths being vital to the future of green technology and other sustainable energy production means, the fact that modern technology is creating jobs and helping the economy is irrelevant. If rare earths are vital to sustainable technology, reducing the quality of our iPhone may be a valuable sacrifice in allowing people to prosper from sustainable energy in the future. We have to stop thinking about ourselves.

  28. This article has brought this to me attention, and is very informing. As a young adult I’m part of the generation that uses or misueses modern technology as this article highlights the misuse of metals and they way they are found and used. I was never aware of the scale of the issue and I agree with how big companies should use sustainable ways and if they don’t they should be penalised for this. Overall I think this an excellent article which raises some real issues with large technology companies

  29. A very interesting, thought provoking article.

    Really brings home the point that rare earth metals are now completely integral to our current lifestyles but little thought has been given to how they’re sourced and the impact the increased usage is having on the environment.

    It seems there is a need for global agreements, H&S legislation and environmental legislation

  30. Interesting article, I think the importance of education through articles such as these is a key part of the solution to this problem. After all part of the reason why greener technology is in higher demand is because the general population have some level of undemanding about finite resources. Many companies are now striving to be seen as cleaning up their environmental image. One can hope that reduced usage of rare earths will slowly become a part of companies cleaning their image, once the general populous becomes more aware of the problem.

    Another 2 cents to throw in, a lot of the other comments have focused on the negative impact of companies such as apple. Whilst I agree that the upgrade culture of the iPhone is undoubtable terrible for the environment I think they are doing something right with their laptops/macbooks. Personally I brought a Mac after having a long line of windows laptops that would really only be fit for purpose for 2/3 years. From speaking to other MacBook users I expect this machine to last for a good 8 years! 5 minimum. Apple have got to be doing something right there, especially as more manufacturers of windows machines are trying to mimic the success of MacBooks.

  31. There are 7 billion people on the planet and 4 billion of them use a mobile phone. Only 3.5 billion of them use a toothbrush.

    I am all for advancements in technology but as the rich get richer the poor get poorer. Western society thriving with advancements whilst others suffer is just not fair.

    I appreciate the solutions posed in the conclusion and spreading awareness is not a bad thing but the entire mentality surrounding technology in all aspects needs to change. We take things for granted too easily in this modern hi tech culture.
    I think obviously stringent safety and environmental limits need to be put in place and the technology companies and governments using technology should foot the bill.

    However stricter control on recycling is key and this is something everyone should be a part of. I think this more sustainability conscious future is where we are headed but things need to speed up.

    Overall a good article and very interesting topic. Well done.

  32. Very interesting article on a topic which is not widely discussed.
    I agree that it is not ‘morally correct’ to make the workers suffer – I would not want to live in a toxic wasteland.
    However, I cannot see how the modern world would be able to function without technology. In some cases technology is slowly killing society. For example, people spending more time pouring their hearts out to social media than spending quality time with loved ones or not being able to date without apps like Tinder. But on the wider picture, as these rare earth metals are used in satellites surely they are helping to keep use safer by predicting natural disasters and terrorist attacks?
    However, I agree with previous comments. It’s not really a problem that the users of the technology can sort out, more the technology companies and governments to put sustainable mining rules in place.

  33. This argument is a very interesting on, and one I had not come across before!

    Whilst technology has vastly improved areas such as medicine and engineering, with enormous benefits for both users and companies alike, it is the day-to-day reliance on technology that has brought with it mass consumerism, and consequently mass problems.

    At such a pivotal time regarding this argument, it is vital that we are leading with education. Teaching companies and consumers alike the potential consequences of their actions is the only way that a sustainable future can be found.

  34. As an environmentalist I’ve been wanting to find out more about this topic for a while – and now I feel better equipped to take on the naysayers! It would be interesting to find out more about how working conditions and environmental protections can be improved in China and elsewhere, on top of reducing and reusing and all the rest of it (which I completely agree with). Also, given that there is a finite amount of rare earth metals, are we in danger of running out in the near future in the absence of universal recycling schemes (circular economy and all that)?

  35. Humanism is the obvious ethical framework we should be following, no matter how prevalent these metals are in our every day lives and how much happiness they bring, we should not be taking advantage of people’s health and environment to mine them.
    This article is excellent in spelling out the issues and ethical dilemmas of the use and extraction of these metals. It is difficult as we are all culpable without even realising it as we demand newer and shinier technology without realising the consequences, the onus is on us to put pressure on these irresponsible practises and as consumers we have the power.

  36. Great article, with balanced arguments for both sides. This article crucially epitomises the wasteful and throwaway culture of modern living. The use of rare metals in wind turbines seems absurb as we are trying to provide clean energy – this issue needs to be rectified if we are going to produce genuinely clean energy which is what is our ultimate goal. Recycling for me is imperative. Also I believe that due to the large amounts of money in this sector, a ban or imposed restriction will not be catastrophic to the tech sector but instead will force innovation.

  37. This is such an interesting and engaging article about such an important issue! I wonder how much of this information the general public know when they’re deciding to updgrade their phone every 12months? And if they are are how much this informs their decision, if at all?

  38. I didn’t really know anything about any of this before this article and while it was good to know I don’t think the ethical burden or responsibility lies with me.

    I depend on my phone sooo much, I wouldn’t be able to make friends at school and from sports without it. It is a key part of modern life now for my generation and to be honest when I want a new phone I don’t think about where it has come from. There is too much going on in life for me to think about that.

    I do understand from reading this that there is a serious issue and a lot of technology is binned and wasted which should change. The environmental issues are not ok but its so far away and separate from our thoughts it is hard to really care about it.

    I think the conclusions are good for addressing this but personally, I think change needs to happen at the top level down . Manufactures need to set the standards not your average person like me that doesn’t think on this big global ethical scale.

    Nice article, interesting to read.

  39. An informative, enlightening article.

    My initial thoughts are that the responsibility lies in the hands of the manufacturer as it is up to the manufacturer to responsibly source raw materials, and therefore these manufacturers are likely to have the power to encourage ethical extraction. This could perhaps be a more rigorous cleaning procedure or a more sophisticated waste removal system. It is assumed that manufacturers are inclined to consider cost when it comes to sourcing raw materials and therefore may opt for the cheapest option regardless of induced leaching and such. One big question is would consumers be willing to pay an increased cost in exchange for more ethical resourcing?

    Another suggestion to reduce extraction and waste is to encourage manufacturers to produce longer lasting, more durable devices. Yes, some people do like to have high tech equipment such as the latest mobile phones, but for the majority of people, would this really be necessary if devices were more reliable, hard wearing and lasted longer?

  40. Great article, however I believe that there is too much focus and blame on western society and the everyday user of technology. The technology that these materials have enabled benefit humans all over the world not just western society. Medical equipment, global communications, and the globalisation of the economy is benefitting us all. This mine in china is benefitting hugely from this business and it is bringing a stable economy to a remote area.
    If we are to take away this industry by recycling more and sourcing from elsewhere it is just going to cause more human issues as we leave the community polluted and jobless. As with all economic development, mistakes are made but as the local economy becomes stable there will be an emphasis on cleaner and more efficient operations. Just look at the Thames and how polluted it was post industrial age, and now it can be swam in.
    Is it ethically wrong in general to suggest that “privileged westerners” can comment and decide what’s best for remote economies and livelihoods.

  41. Why can’t we just stop the mining altogether?
    Surely there are enough rare earth metals in landfill sites to meet demand!

    And for those of you who are complaining about your phone/laptop batteries not lasting long enough, maybe you could try not using your device for a few hours a day and spend some time living in the real world – see if that helps.

  42. A good read, it’s left me wondering who would be most responsible for the recycling of these Rare Earths. The Western World? Those mining these Rare Earths? The companies making the use of them?

  43. Really didn’t know any of this before reading this article, would love to hear what the minors think. really good and informative, thank you

  44. Very interesting article.

    It is impressive how a small unnoticed part of our everyday life can have such a huge impact on the planet, and thus our lives. Personally, I can’t imagine my life without the use of technology every day, so boycotting such products is sadly not an option I can choose willingly. But, I do believe the solution lies in raising awareness about the issue, and about sustainable manufacturers who recycle if there are any. Also, awareness on needless tech upgrades is a must. I have personally never bought into the needless upgrades but it is about making everyone else aware of how much their upgrades can cost the planet. Finally, I believe a strong solution to the issue would be one implemented politically by imposing standards and restrictions n the monitored production of rare earths, but then again this also relies on raising awareness.

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