Have you ever stopped to think about what goes into the technology that makes your iPhone work? You may or may not be surprised to know that your phone and other high-tech devices you use on a daily basis work because of rare minerals. It takes rare minerals like neodymium to cause powerful enough vibrations to make your phone or earbuds emit such loud sound while still being so small. Certain rare minerals like europium are responsible for making your smartphone screen reach a certain intensity or brightness, while others allow your phone to detect movement, such as screen rotation and speed measurement. Because of the valuable minerals that go into your phone and countless other electronic devices, many of these minerals are in extremely high demand, and as a result are being used at an alarming rate. Something to consider before tossing away your perfectly functional smartphone merely because of a cracked screen.
Specifically, smartphones use certain minerals known as rare earth elements. These materials are in short supply, and when they can be found, they are very hard to mine. On top of this, there is really only one major rare earth mine in the US, called Mountain Pass, located in southern California. Otherwise, about 97% of these rare earths are found in China, who is becoming increasingly aware of their monopoly on these essential iPhone building blocks.
The process of mining rare earths produces a ridiculous amount of excess, unusable waste. This waste becomes toxic, and when disposed of, can cause environmental issues. The waste by-product contains toxic and, even more so, radioactive chemicals. In Baotou, the center of rare-earth mining in Mongolia, this waste is dumped into what are known as “tailings lakes.” The by-product of harvesting these minerals is in liquid form, thus, it can soak into the soil surrounding these tailings lakes, which affects farms, livestock, and even people living near the lakes. Scary stuff, right?
Many consumer electronics in the U.S. also contain what are referred to as conflict minerals. Many of these minerals are mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the proceeds of which are often used to fund combatants in ongoing wars in the DRC. Because of this, a reform was set into place--the Dodd-Frank Act--that requires companies to monitor and disclose whom they are getting their minerals from. However, because these minerals change hands so much in the manufacturing process, the effort of tracking down where their minerals came from is costing companies a pretty penny.
Environmental activists and the EPA are hard at work trying to regulate the amount of harm that can be done by the mining of rare earths, and because of this, rare earth mines are starting to clean up their act. Mountain Pass is leading the way in alternative, cleaner methods of mining rare earths, and they hope other mining organizations follow suit. While this is a big step, it doesn’t solve all the problems that come with the demand of rare earths. As it turns out, “the metals in your phone aren’t just rare; they’re irreplaceable.” This Gizmodo article points out that when these minerals run out, there are very few effective replacements available to us, and in some cases, none. Given the rate at which new phones are released, boasting new, refined technology, some expect this problem to arise as soon as 2020.
So, given the consequences of the demand and use of rare minerals, what can we do to counteract it? For starters, it may be smarter to repair your current phone when it breaks, rather than replace it completely. Additionally, as enticing as it may be to have the newest, brand new iPhone model, you can always think about buying a secondhand phone. There are also organizations that will allow you to recycle your old phone so that they can harvest the rare minerals in them. These are all better options than wasting the precious minerals that go into making your phone. It prevents us from running out of these materials, and eventually may even decrease the environmental impact that mining said materials causes. While it is often cheaper to replace a broken screen than the phone itself, it may also be better for the environment.