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Left to your Own Devices
international | environment | opinion / analysis Thursday January 28, 2016 06:00 by Pink Panther - AWSM
This article looks at the way capitalism and consumerism are destroying the resources of the planet, while critiquing mainstream environmentalist responses to this destruction.
Coltan. Sounds like the name of an evil king in a cheap sci-fi movie, doesn’t it? In fact, it is a mineral that has electricity conducting properties. Without it the Samsung device I am typing this on and the mobile device or laptop you are reading this on would not exist. Most of the world’s supply of coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of it comes from cheap or child labour rounded up by various militia armies who mine it so they can buy weapons and other supplies according to a 2003 UN Security Council report and various human rights organisations.
Lithium is also an electricity conducting mineral but it is also very good at storing it. That’s why this mineral is used to make batteries, such as the one on the device you are using now. Where does the majority of the world’s supply of it come from? Australia and Chile according to the US Geological Survey in 2015. Chile’s record as far as extractive industries is concerned has been far from impressive in terms of wages and conditions. This was highlighted by the 2010 Copiapó mining accident in which 33 workers became trapped after a mine explosion. Although that one was not a lithium mine, it does highlight the generally poor standards that exist. In China, one of the other major lithium purchasers, the number of miners killed is often in hundreds every year.
There are other minerals that are mined elsewhere that go into your mobile devices but they’re not as important. No matter where they are sourced whole ecosystems and environments are wiped out to enable these minerals to be extracted, transported by road or rail to the nearest port then transported to a factory in China. Odds are if your device is an Apple it will have been made via a Taiwanese company called Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd (commonly known as Foxconn). Their Chinese factories use cheap labour that is so brutally exploited that suicides among its workers have caused a scandal. If not, chances are that the devices will have been made by prison labour.
Once manufactured, your device will be exported around the world and marked up to astoundingly ridiculous prices. According to TIME magazine 24/9/14 the total cost of manufacturing an Apple 16GB iPhone 6 is about $USD200.10. The standard retail price for an iPhone is around $USD649 or so without a contract to a wireless provider. Other companies like Samsung and Huawei don’t charge as much but that is usually because they are bullied into putting bloatware into their products. Bloatware is built in software or apps that aren’t actually necessary or wanted but which takes up lots of memory and drains battery power like crazy while running in the background.
If that does not shock you then think about the environmental destruction being caused to mine the coal, build the hydroelectric dams and drill for the oil needed to both transport the minerals and the completed electronic devices and to generate the electricity needed to charge up or plug in all those devices. Those cell phone towers used to send signals to your mobile device also rely on those environmentally unfriendly forms of electricity generation.
Finally, we come to what happens when the device is rendered useless by changes in the networks or operating systems or if you smash it in frustration. It becomes E-waste. E-waste is not as easy to dispose of as one might think. Most landfills will not accept E-waste and the devices that end up being dumped contain all sorts of toxic chemicals that pose a major threat to the health and safety of landfill workers, recyclers and others involved in the disposal of e-waste.
According to a 2011 report by the academics Wath/Dutt and Chakrabarti, who did a case study of conditions in India, the environmental impact of various items that make up e-waste
Cathode ray tubes (used in TVs, computer monitors, ATM, video cameras, and more) leads to lead, barium and other heavy metals leaching into the ground water and release of toxic phosphor.
Printed circuit board (a thin plate on which chips and other electronic components are placed) leads to air emissions as well as discharge into rivers of glass dust, tin, lead, brominated dioxin, beryllium cadmium, and mercury.
Chips and other gold plated components lead to hydrocarbons, heavy metals, brominated substances discharged directly into rivers acidifying fish and flora. Tin and lead contamination of surface and groundwater. Air emissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals and hydrocarbons
Plastics from printers, keyboards, monitors, etc leads to the emissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals and hydrocarbons.
Computer wires leads to hydrocarbon ashes being released into the air, water and soil.
Trying to recycle or dispose of e-waste impacts on everything from what we eat to the air we breathe, as its waste products infiltrate our environment. From the extraction of the minerals used to make high tech devices to the disposal of e-waste the exploitation of workers and hazardous working conditions dominate the industry. Even when workers can afford to buy and use the high tech products their labour produces the apps and other features are mostly determined by what corporate elites dictate at a price based on blatant profiteering rather than what they are actually worth.
What can we do about all this in the short term?
For a start we can opt to purchase our high tech products from businesses that don’t get their coltan and lithium from conflict zones or countries that ignore basic workers’ rights and safety standards.