Did you watch all the recent “Climate Strike” demonstrations? Environmentalism is on a lot of people’s minds. While most of us are guilty of some things that hurt the planet, our worst sin might be that we encourage the tech industry to keep churning out slightly better bricks to browse Facebook on, despite the fact that those companies are enemies of the environment. Let’s take a look:
The Internet Causes 2 Percent Of All Carbon Pollution
We all know that the internet doesn’t simply exist. It’s provided to you courtesy of a massive data center somewhere. But unlike a warehouse full of boxes, data centers require a lot of lightning juice to keep our memes flowing. Unfortunately, that makes them awful for the environment. Because of their insane energy demands, data centers are responsible for 2 percent of the carbon dioxide we’re farting into the sky. That’s about the same percentage as the entire airline industry.
The problem isn’t that we’re running too many servers, it’s that these servers never stop running. Powering a server takes only a pittance of the energy required to constantly cool them down. We can’t merely turn them off for a while, as that would have disastrous consequences – like not being able to check Facebook for a few minutes. Also, it’s been estimated that the amount of energy these data centers consume could triple over the course of the next decade, thanks to innovations like streaming, driverless cars, and our need to attach Bluetooth to everything.
Silicon Valley Is Built Atop A Toxic Dumping Ground
In the early days of computing, the place that we call Silicon Valley didn’t exist. It was nothing but a boring industrial estate full of companies with boring names like Fairchild and Raytheon producing boring components like computer chips. You know what they didn’t do that was boring? Spill a bunch of dangerous chemicals into the ground.
The process for making physical computer chips is still industrial. A whole litany of chemicals are involved, like trichloroethylene, which are super-dangerous to human health and should NEVER get into groundwater. Which is of course exactly what happened. By failing to fix leaky tanks and other vital chemical infrastructures, companies like Intel allowed thousands of gallons of these chemicals to seep into the groundwater of the area, which was discovered in the 1980s and led to the EPA (back when we had one) blanketing the area in warning signs and red tape.
Worse, the chemicals are still in the groundwater, and they have an awful habit of returning to totally disrupt people’s immune systems. This is achieved via a process known as “vapor intrusion,” wherein the chemicals circulate through the ventilation systems of buildings.
You know that cutesy statue garden that Google built to celebrate having made a phone? That used to be the site of a chip manufacturer called CTS Printex, Inc. Quite curiously, a thousand Google employees working next door were found to have been dosed with “excessive levels” of trichloroethene over the course of two months as a result of a problem with the building’s ventilation system.
But hey, at least “everyone’s getting brain-damaged” is a good excuse for why so many bad ideas are coming out of Silicon Valley. Time to wheel in some healthy nerds.
Mongolia Has A Toxic Lake Because Of Your Phone’s Electronics
You’ll likely never visit the town of Baotou in Mongolia. But if you do, don’t. The only tourist attraction is the local lake, and unless you love to bathe in muddy concoctions of acid, industrial effluent, and radioactive sludge, you should stay 1,000 miles away from it.
Baotou’s artificial poison lake is a direct result of your smartphone. Almost every rare earth mineral necessary for us to have everything mildly technological, from magnets to touchscreens, comes from Baotou. Its Bayan Obo mines contain 70 percent of the world’s reserves, which is one of the main reasons China can buy us a hundred times over.
Mining these minerals, however, creates nightmarish vistas. Even after you’ve thrown enough people at the mine to retrieve the minerals, there’s still the small matter of processing them into a salable state. That’s where the chemicals come in. Cerium, for instance, can only be extracted by being crushed and dissolved in sulfuric and nitric acid. To then get rid of the runoff, China dammed off a river and flooded farmland to create a “tailings pond,” a body of water primarily used to dump toxic sludge in.
Over the years, the lake became more toxins than water. Drinking its water, or just living and breathing its sticky air, have contributed to a ton of illnesses in the region, including nausea, migraines, and arthritis. One study of the lake’s mud even found traces of radioactive material, which certainly goes a long way toward explaining the area’s suspiciously high number of people with leukemia. Oh, that dam that’s at least keeping this hellish landscape contained to the damned of Baotou? It was so shoddily built that even the slightest tremor could bring it toppling down and trigger the ecological end of days.
Your iPhone’s Screen Is Poisoning Chinese Workers
Long ago, there was a group known as “the radium girls,” a group of factory workers who were unknowingly spending their days painting watch faces with radium, an insanely lethal chemical we only realized was dangerous after people started glowing in the dark. Nothing like that could ever happen today, right? We don’t even wear watches anymore; we use our phones to … oh wait.
The production of your iPhone is split between several companies you’ve never heard of. The screens, for instance, are made by a company called Fangtai Huawei Electronic Technology, based in Guizhou, China. There, they pay workers a pittance to clean touchscreens with a concoction informally known as “banana oil,” a very cutesy name for a substance that put 30 workers in the hospital.
However, the banana fun time fluid was laced with n-hexane, a cleaning agent derived from crude oil so toxic that being near it can cause headaches, nausea, fatigue, and irreversible damage to the central nervous system. Anyone working with this solvent was meant to be working in a well-ventilated area and wearing an industrial-strength mask, but high safety standards do not a cheap iPhone make. So the workers were given paper masks for breathing, and the only ventilation they got was from the foreman yelling at them for trying to crack a window.
Surely, because we overpay hundreds of dollars per iPhone each year, that left the company with plenty of profits to pay workers compensation, right? Unfortunately, they prefer to spend their winnings “convincing” health officials that there is no link between the many sick workers and the factory conditions. Fangtai Huawei Electronic Technology will, however, buy a bus ticket for anyone too sick to work so they can go back home to their village. They’re nice like that.
Your Phone Is Unrecyclable
Recycling is good. So if you were in charge of inventing the latest iteration of a gadget that everyone on the planet is guaranteed to own, it’d stand to reason to make it recyclable, right? Congratulations! You’re smarter than everyone in the R&D departments of Apple, Samsung, Google, and every other tech giant that ever made a smartphone.
It’s not that they don’t care about the environment; it’s because we don’t want recyclable smartphones. Retrieving the many rare metals that go into a smartphone is complex, so it’s a choice between focusing on increased recyclability or increased functionality, and we have always gone for the functionality.
We saw the issue most recently when Samsung accidentally built and then recalled 4.3 million potential smart bombs. Unable to be repaired, refurbished, or resold to consumers, they needed to find a way of disposing of them that is environmentally conscious. Too bad we haven’t figured that one out yet.
There are 50 rare elements in each phone. Of those 50, it’s only currently possible to recycle roughly a dozen of them. That’s not just a kick in the pants for Samsung’s profit margin, but also a slap in the face for all the people who had to suffer so that those phones could get made. Sure, they were only ever destined to be used for dumb games or sexting, but it’s better than a landfill.
And we can’t make some new smartphone materials if we run out of these. Most of these elements aren’t replaceable. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. Even worse, when Yale University looked for viable replacements for the metals and elements that go into smartphones, it discovered that there were no viable replacements that could be switched in once we run out. We have “Meh” replacements and “Are you kidding me?” replacements, but nothing that performs as well as the materials that we’re currently using. It’s a burgeoning crisis that’ll force us into reconsidering how we consume electronics.