Our iPhones Are Causing An Environmental Disaster

Photo: ED JONES/Getty Images.
We spend a lot of time thinking about what our smartphones can do, but we don't spend much time thinking about how they're made — and what a toxic mess that process leaves behind. Thanks to a report by the BBC, we now know a lot more about that mess, and it's impossible to un-see.

Writer Tim Maughan, who traveled to the city of Baotou in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, called the sludge lake "a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying." The city is one of the world's largest providers of rare earth minerals, which can be found in virtually every piece of cutting-edge technology we use.

The lake is also large enough to show up on Google Maps, as Maughan pointed out. China produces more than 90% of the world's rare earth minerals, so Baotou is not unique. The city is only one of many sites around the world where this type of mining and processing takes place, leaving highly toxic waste and a lack of concern for environmental protection. Last year, China passed its first new environmental protection regulations since 1989, according to The Guardian.
Advertisement
Google Maps via BBC


For now, pipes will keep feeding dreck into the lake that "feels like hell on Earth," in Maughan's words, but a small design studio wants to keep the public thinking about the radioactive waste pumping into a lake in China. The Unknown Fields Division, which traveled with Maughan on his trip, plans to make it art. Members of the group took radioactive mud from the toxic lakebed and fashioned it into pottery.  

While business for rare earth minerals, and the phones and computers they go into, is still booming, the plants and mines are not operating unnoticed by local residents, and tensions are high in some parts of China. Radio Free Asia reported that Chinese police arrested dozens of people protesting pollution from a chemical plant near another village in the same province.
Waste pumps line the lakeshore (via BBC)
Advertisement