The environmental cost of technology
Dr Gary Robertshaw
Computers, tablets, mobile devices and hybrid car batteries. They all contain rare earth metals. By extension, everyday life in the Western world relies on these rare earth metals. But why should this pose a concern for the environment?
Well, there are substantial environmental costs associated with the use of rare earth metals. In the first place the metals have to be extracted by mining and then purified. Mining can be a dirty business creating topsoil loss and pollution of waterways, requiring road building infrastructures and causing degradation of natural environments. Often, miners have to work under dangerous conditions for minimal pay with scant regard to health and safety.
Then there is the disposal of technological machines and gadgets. Today, people tend not to repair older electronic equipment. Instead they discard it and buy the newest model. How many people keep their current mobile phone more than a few years? Discarded electronics typically end up in landfill sites, where they create their own pollution problems as rare earth metals and toxins gradually seep out into surrounding soil.
True, some electronics do go to recycling facilities. However, there are many unscrupulous operators in the third world where workers are paid a pittance and exposed to hazardous elements as they strip down these electronics for re-use. The whole process inevitably creates pollution and makes people sick.
The solution? Repair or at least retain, rather than replace. Ethically sourced supplies should be made more readily available, and the industry should be subject to more intense oversight. Eco-friendly replacements for rare earth metals do exist but that would entail cost increases for consumers. A price worth paying? Companies that outsource or import labour to exploit people should be publicly shamed for what they do, whether that labour is in mines or recycling centres.