The dark side of gadgets: as the production of smartphones is destroying the planet

The dark side of gadgets: as the production of smartphones is destroying the planet

What is a smartphone made of?

Smartphones are 40% made of metals, the same amount of plastic, another fifth is ceramics and other materials. They contain about 60 different metals, mainly copper, gold, platinum, silver and tungsten. Irreplaceable are the so-called rare earth metals — of the 17 existing gadgets use 16, for example, neodymium, terbium and dysprosium.

Thanks to them, modern phones have properties without which they can not be imagined. Rare earth materials are needed to allow the smartphone to vibrate, they are used for the production of touch screens. Most of these metals have been discovered over the past two centuries, and they are quite rare. They are produced only in several parts of the world and are used for the production of not only smartphones, but also solar panels or electric vehicles.

One of the largest suppliers of rare earth metals is China — where 100% of the world’s dispersion is extracted. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, where civil conflict continues, is among the other key suppliers of raw materials for smartphones.

It is still unknown how long the world’s reserves of rare earth metals will last. In 2013, researchers from Yale University said that by 2050, the stocks of several of them can completely dry up, and therefore, the production of new gadgets (at least in their current form) will be under threat. However, in April 2018, Japanese scientists announced that at the bottom of the sea of this country found almost infinite reserves of rare earth metals — 16 tons. This could lead Japan to the first place in terms of reserves of rare earth metals taking away this place from China. Therefore, you can not buy insurance for your iPhone yet.

Children in mines

Another important metal for the production of gadgets is copper. This is one of the three most popular metals in the world, the demand for which exceeds the rate of production. The largest suppliers of copper are Chile, USA, Peru, Australia, Russia, Indonesia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many of these countries have problems respecting workers ‘ rights, and the Congo often employs child labour. This is reported by human rights activists from “Amnesty International”. The kids working there are mines, which produce raw materials for the products of Apple and Samsung. These children were often abducted by militants involved in the civil war in the country. The money from the mining industry, the army and militants in the Congo spend on the purchase of weapons.

After accusations from human rights activists, large companies promised to conduct an investigation. In 2014, the us government obliged electronics manufacturers to indicate whether they use raw materials from conflict zones. However, children in the Congo still work in cobalt mines. And since raw materials for gadgets are mined and collected in dozens of corners of the world, it is impossible to guarantee that materials from “clean” and “conflict” mines were not mixed. Therefore, it is likely that the production of your smartphone used the labor of an African child.

A minor boy with his mother watching the process of processing copper at the mine near the town of Monywa, Myanmar, December 1, 2012. In some countries, child labour is often used in mines.

Toxic production

The dark side of gadgets: as the production of smartphones is destroying the planet -2 Another problem of the gadget industry is the terrible working conditions of the people who collect them. In 2010, a wave of suicides among employees of Foxconn factories in China, a key partner of Apple, caused a resonance. People could not stand more than 12-hour shifts and cruel treatment of the management. Only after that, electronics manufacturers have promised to improve working conditions in their factories.

However, in January 2018, Bloomberg published an investigation about the factory in China, where iPhone cases are made. Journalists found out that some workers have to spend 10 hours on their feet, others work without headphones in rooms where the noise level is off scale. Workers live in dirty hostels, where there are no basic amenities, in particular, hot water. Apple denied the journalists ‘ accusations, saying it found no violations at the plant, but promised to conduct its own investigation.

American tech giant is not the only large company that, despite multibillion-dollar profits, saves on salaries and working conditions of employees. Samsung was accused of poisoning people in its factories in South Korea — after about 200 people became ill with leukemia, lymphoma and multiple sclerosis due to contact with toxic materials in the mid-2000s. At least 76 people died, all of them were 20-30 years old. The company offered about $900 million compensation to the father of one of the deceased employees in exchange for his silence, but he still told the press about what happened.

In 2013, the Dutch company introduced a smartphone, which is called the first completely “ethical”. Manufacturers guarantee that they do not use child labor, the extraction of raw materials is carried out under strict control, and the workers who collect the gadget work in normal conditions. The gadget is almost completely subject to repair and processing. However, the founder of Bas van Abel admits that even their smartphone is not 100% safe for the planet.

Radioactive lakes

The production of gadgets has a significant impact on the environment. View of the island of Bangka in Indonesia has changed dramatically due to uncontrolled tin mining. In place of dense tropical forests appeared craters, there are problems with drinking water. After restrictions were imposed on the extraction of raw materials in conflict zones such as the Congo, Indonesia became the main supplier of tin. And it destroys the nature of the island nation.

In the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia due to the extraction of rare earth metals for gadgets appeared radioactive lakes. And the copper industry in Chile has led to a large toxic waste dump in Latin America. For the production of gadgets over the past 10 years used electricity, which would be enough to meet the needs of one of the most populated countries in the world — India — for a whole year.

People work on machines at Foxconn factory in Guiyang city, Guizhou province, China, may 28, 2018. Foxconn factory in Guiyang — Apple’s main partner — released 16 million smartphones for Nokia and Huawei in 2017, and in 2018 — almost 30 million In 2010 due to the harsh working conditions, the plant was covered by a wave of suicide workers. After this was told the journalists that the plant’s management promised to improve conditions.


Modern gadgets often can not be repaired after a breakdown. It is possible to recycle at least 20% of the parts broken smartphones. Because of this, the planet accumulates more and more so-called “electronic” or “e-garbage”. In 2018, there were about 50 tons of such waste on Earth, and this number is constantly growing. In China, India, Pakistan and Ghana there were landfills of electronic garbage, which is brought there from around the world, often illegally. If used gadgets are not disposed of properly, toxic metals that are in their composition (in particular, mercury, aluminum and lead) fall into rivers, lakes and groundwater. This has a detrimental effect on human and animal health.

How to change the situation?

No matter how terrible these facts may sound, humanity will hardly be able to completely abandon gadgets. So what to do to minimize the harm?

The first thing that, according to experts, could change the electronics manufacturers — is not to produce whole devices that have to be thrown away after the slightest breakage, and with interchangeable parts. A few years ago, tech giants switched to the production of smartphones with built-in batteries — this contributed to an increase in the volume of e-garbage. Batteries are usually the first thing that goes wrong, and after that the gadgets are just thrown away. Returning to the practice of removable and, accordingly, replaceable batteries is a good idea, even if as a result smartphones will become somewhat thicker. However, manufacturers are not interested in this, because the long life of gadgets means less sales and profits.

Gadget buyers can also influence the situation. In particular, do not chase fashion trends, conduct careful care for smartphones, and after failure to take in special reception points (often points of sale of electronics). Protective cover and cover on the screen can permanently increase the life cycle of the smartphone. Researchers say that modern gadgets can serve up to 7 years. However, people usually buy a new smartphone every 2.5 years.

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