22 Mar 2013

The awesome destructiveness of the smartphone

A recent business article in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/jan/06/smartphone-sales-1bn-2013) suggested that 1 billion smartphones will be manufactured in 2013.  Indeed they say that 2013 will be the “year of the smartphone”. This will add to the 1.2 billion smartphones already in existence.  Considering that the implementation of this technology is only 5 years old, this is a meteoric rise.

It might be as well to start looking at the implications of this, as we would not want to go blundering into a potential problem without considering the pitfalls.  Amazingly no-one appears to be aware of the horrendous problems caused by smartphones.  We need to lift the lid on this destructive gadget.

A good place to start is to look at the component materials that go to make up a smartphone.  The list is long, but some of the materials require deeper investigation.  For example Indium and Gallium; Rare earth metals that enable the touchscreen to work so sexily that they give the smartphone its unique selling proposition.  Without rare earths, I’m sure the smartphone revolution would not be taking place right now.

Indium and Gallium:
Indium and Gallium might be termed rare earth elements but they are not that rare and can be found in many places on the planet.  But there is one catch, they exist only in very small concentrations (hence rare), and the amount of rock that has to be extracted and blasted to get to the Indium and Gallium is huge.  And thus starts the inventory of environmental damage…
·         Huge amounts of energy being expended (and that is principally fossil fuel energy);
·         Ecosystems being destroyed, stripping of forests, and creation of mining wastelands;
·         Disruption and subjugation of the local population and indigenous peoples who very often just happen to be in the way. Sometimes this involves covert slaughter of these people.
·         Disposal of huge volumes of mine “tailings”;
·         Pollution of river courses;
·         Pollution of the sea.
A further problem is that the mines are always located in countries that have an appalling record in environmental protection.

At the moment China accounts for 97% of global output of these precious rare earth minerals, with two-thirds produced in the remote region of Inner Mongolia.

The picture on the left shows a toxic lake, 10 sq km in size, near the town of Baotou, where there is a smelting plant which produces hundreds of chemicals that are used to process the 17 most sought after rare earths. No fish or algae will survive in this lake, and the shore line is covered with a black crust that is so thick it can be walked on.

The lake also contains radioactive elements like Thorium which can cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs as well as leukaemia.  Since 1958, when the smelting plant was built the area has been devastated.  There used to be farms here where watermelons, aubergines and tomatoes were grown.  Not any more.  Local  people now have to inhale solvent vapour, particularly sulphuric acid, as well as coal dust, clearly visible in the air.  The population of the nearby village of Xinguang Sancun has fallen from 2,000 to 300 as the farmers have moved out.

Indium is mixed with Tin to form Indium Tin Oxide (ITO); a principal component of touchscreens.  More recently Gallium has been used for touchscreens, in this case mixed with Arsenic to form Gallium Arsenide.

Tin appears to be an innocuous material, but isn’t.  Research from Friends of the Earth has unearthed the ghastly environmental impact of Tin mining on the tiny island of Bangka in Indonesia, where much of the world’s tin comes from. Their investigations found “shocking evidence of: dangerous conditions in the unregulated unofficial mining sector, with police figures showing that an average of one miner died a week in 2011; destruction of lush forests and farmland and little restoration of mined land, leaving soil in which it is difficult to grow crops and craters filled with mosquito-attracting stagnant water; and uncontrolled offshore dredging destroying local fishermen's livelihoods, killing coral and the sea grass eaten by turtles”.  Tin from Bangka is found in Samsung and Apple smartphones.

Smartphone batteries are most likely to be made of lithium, a toxic substance that shouldn't be thrown out with the rubbish.  But sadly this happens a lot, as many people are not aware of the WEEE Regulations. Almost every landfill is packed with discarded lithium batteries. But it doesn’t stop there, because the battery will need to be recharged daily, thus consuming massive amounts of principally coal-generated electricity.  (More on this later when we look at the carbon impact of smartphones).

Tantalum is another rare earth mineral which is used in the integrated circuits of smartphones.  Most people will know of this through the name “Coltan” (or Columbite-tantalite).  Wherever mining occurs, there are always huge environment and social problems that stem the political nature of the beast.  And in this case the story of mining Coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo is sadly no exception.

It is clear that the presence of large Coltan reserves in the Congo is fuelling the bitter war between militias from Congo, Ruanda, Burundi and Uganda.

The United Nations noted in its 2001 report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources in the Congo that "The consequences of illegal exploitation has been twofold: (a) massive availability of financial resources for the Rwandan Patriotic Army, and the individual enrichment of top Ugandan military commanders and civilians; (b) the emergence of illegal networks headed by either top military officers or businessmen."

The working conditions for the workers are atrocious.  Coltan is laborious to mine, as it takes about three days for the workers to march into the forests to scratch out the ore with hand tools and pan it.  The mining process is lawless and uncontrolled. The health and safety of the workers is non-existent, but the tragedy is that casualties are not recorded because of the warring militias which create a climate of fear.

Because of uncontrolled mining in the Congo, the land is being eroded and is polluting lakes and rivers, affecting the ecology of the region.  Miners are far from food sources and have been hunting gorillas. The Eastern Mountain Gorilla's population has diminished and is critically endangered.

Nothing electrical can survive without copper.  There is no other substance on the planet which conducts electricity like copper.  But the mining of copper is associated with probably the most heart wrenching environmental and social damage of all.  One of the world’s largest Copper mines is located in the mountainous rainforest of West Papua.  Operated by jointly by Freeport and Rio Tinto, the mine is located in the mountain of Jaya Wijaya (the mountain where the souls of the dead find their rest).  Even though it is remote, it is clearly visible using Google Earth.  The mine has ripped the heart out of the sacred mountain of the West Papuan tribe’s people.  The removal of the indigenous tribes from this area of West Papua has entailed the killing of about 200,000 people over a period of 30 years.  The mining security firms, aided and abetted by the Indonesian Army which absorbed West Papua into Indonesia in 1969, have been responsible for clearing the huge area not only of the rainforest, but the people living there.

Further investigation of Google Earth will show the course of the mining tailings; an orange sludge that travels south down the now toxic river to the Arafura Sea.

Sustainability: Peak Indium, Peak Gallium, Peak Copper and Peak Everything:
Mining the precious minerals that go into smartphones is just not sustainable, by any definition of that word.
The Brundtland definition of sustainability is "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Aalborg definition is “the rate at which we consume renewable and non-renewable material, water and energy resources should not exceed the rate at which the natural systems can replenish them”.

Either way it is clear that we are extracting these materials at a grossly unsustainable rate.

As a result Peak Indium and Peak Gallium will occur before 2030, Peak Copper about 2040, and the vast majority of most materials on the planet will be economically exhausted before the end of the century.

Radio Frequency (RF) Radiation:
As smartphones rise through the technological spectrum; 2G to 3G to 4G, so the resultant electromagnetic flux increases.
In the words of Spanish biologist Alfonso Balmori of the Institute for the Environment (Consejería de Medio Ambiente) in Castilla y León “the electromagnetic field is a perfect secret agent: you cannot see it, you cannot smell it, you cannot hear it, you cannot feel it, and its effects are slow but relentless”.

Very few people die from the electromagnetic flux caused by smartphones and their transmission equipment, but the health of everyone inside the electromagnetic field will deteriorate inexorably.

Climate Impact:
It is the climate impact of smartphones, where the scale of the problem becomes starkly clear.

According to WattzOn the embedded lifecycle energy of a typical smartphone (in this case an iPhone) is about 219kWh. In order to calculate the CO2 emissions we need to apply an emissions factor.
It seems sensible to assume the emissions factor for China where the smartphone is likely to come from and where most of the constituent materials come from.  This is 0.764 kgCO2/kWh.

This calculates as 167kg CO2 per smartphone.  (219 * 0.764)

Multiply this by a billion (1,000,000,000) for the mobile phones to be manufactured in 2013, and the total carbon cost of this single technology works out as 167 million tonnes of CO2 per annum. 

To make it clear, this is equivalent to the annual emissions of the Netherlands.   Let’s make this clearer.  In the short space of 5 years humanity has invented a new technology that is now adding the equivalent carbon emissions of a country the size of the Netherlands.  And that carbon burden is growing at an exponential rate, because the replacement rate of smartphones is of the order of two years, (for some it is an annual upgrade) and increasingly people have more than one smartphone.  And in addition to that we are adding even more intensive technological gizmos, like Kindles and Tablets.

But let’s put this in a more frightening context:  In order to avoid dangerous climate change we need to limit global temperatures rising above the 2 degrees C threshold, humanity needs to start reducing all greenhouse gas emissions, by about 3% every year.  For Western nations like the UK, that reduction needs to be sharper; somewhere between 5% and 10% per year. 

That is a year-on-year reduction. Even in a world-wide recession greenhouse gas emissions are still relentlessly rising.  Smartphones are simply not compatible with the immediate endeavour to avoid dangerous climate change.

So what can we do?
Clearly we need an immediate world-wide ban of smartphones and similar gizmos.  I really can’t see this happening anytime soon. But as individuals we have a choice. We can reject the technology, and make the decision not to purchase a smartphone.  For some this will be a hard decision.  Others have already made that commitment.

But I want to make this decision unequivocal.  Can you openly buy a smartphone if – having read the above article – you now have a full understanding of the awesome destructiveness that this gizmo inflicts on our world and our future?