The murky path to high-tech production


So-called smartphones now form a ubiquitous part of modern life. There are more smartphones active in the UK than there are people. Most of us carry one around in our pocket, and a Nottingham Trent study found the average person to check their smartphone an astounding 85 times per day. Why exactly we feel the desire to make such frequent peeks is a mystery, especially since they are usually uninteresting and are mildly exciting at best and in either case inherently short-term.

The social implications of smartphone ever-presence are astounding. Apple released the first iPhone model just ten years ago, and look at how society has changed in that time. Before the advent of the smartphone, my experience was that text conversations were very much like in-person ‘real-life’ conversations, in that responses would be fairly prompt and when one converser had something to go and do, the conversation ended with a goodbye.

I have fond memories of the third-hand, near indestructible Nokia 3310 which I held onto for 6 years or so, until the ‘s-t-u’ key fell out (vastly reducing the number of words in my lexicon), at which point I reluctantly got a second-hand iPhone 4. On the old 3310, the only text message you could see whilst replying was the one you were typing, meaning there were some memory exercises involved. There was no copy and paste function, either. These factors meant conversations took effort and therefore were not something to be done in-between working or watching a TV show. Suddenly, smartphones made not just the previous message available for viewing, but also all previous messages, reducing the effort and enabling the re-kindling of a long-stagnated, half-forgotten discussion.

In contrast to the days of the ‘dumb phone’ (as they are now called), it is now considered perfectly decent manners to ignore a text message reply for a day or more, with no particular reason given. Just imagine if you were talking to someone in person and then, completely unannounced, they got up and left, returning two days later at exactly the point you left off. This is the way we are learning (and are implicitly teaching the younger generation) to communicate. I have spoken to many people who have noted that they find it considerably harder to spark a meaningful in-person conversation than they used to and almost everyone will admit to having a short attention span.

The social impacts go on and on: notably, smartphones heralded the origin of the selfie and have thereby had the effect of turning many inward, quite literally, taking photos of themselves rather than of the outside world.

Why is this important for Cut Waste, Not Trees (Down)? Because climate change is possibly the longest-term problem humanity has faced, and a blinkered, distracted person with a very short attention span is unlikely to spend much of their time considering the environmental problems faced and the means by which we might tackle them.

Of course, there is a case to be made for the usefulness of smartphones: the ability to never get lost so long as you have GPRS; the fact you can communicate across continents extremely cheaply; the extension of the pronoun Google to the status of verb. Whether this convenience culture in which we find ourselves is healthy for the mind and body is up for discussion, but it is increasingly difficult to argue that smartphones do not impend on our ability to perform certain tasks, or to concentrate deeply. What is clear in any case, is the important role played by smartphones in many, many people’s lifestyles, for better or for worse.



In a previous blog piece, I have advocated shopping for vegetables at local markets, and the importance of trying to connect with the path which the foods we consume have travelled along. This helps not only to obtain an idea of the associated ‘carbon footprint’, or ‘food miles’, but also a sense of respect and gratitude for the efforts of many farmers, distributors and animals involved along the process of transporting from farm to plate. It makes clear sense to try to gain an understanding of what exactly we are feeding into our bodies, and where they have come from. But what about other aspects of our daily lives? What is the path of the smartphone, from mine to jeans pocket?

Like computers, car batteries and wind turbine motors, the construction of smartphones relies on rare earth materials. These exotic, mined materials are becoming harder and harder to come across as these technologies become more widespread, driving up prices and also causing tension in the (typically poor) regions from which they are mined. Rare earth metals such as tellurium, neodymium and cerium are less abundant in the Earth’s crust than gold, making them highly valuable substances. Above and beyond their rarity, these metals gain instrumental value by their usefulness for the development of contemporary technological innovations.

One essential component of many technologies is tin, with one third of the world’s supply coming from Indonesia. A Friends of the Earth field study in that region found shocking evidence of

“silt from tin mining boats choking coral, driving away fish and marine life and ruining fishermen’s livelihoods; forests and farmland destroyed, loss of soil fertility and little or no restoration of mined land; injuries and fatal accidents when pits collapse.”

Cobalt is another element required for the production of tech products and is found most abundantly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the poorest nations on Earth. Much of the mining there is performed in unregulated, dangerous artisanal mines, where child labour is common and disease and injury are rife. In some cases, 7 year old children are expected to carry sacks heavier than themselves. Many miners suffer breathing problems and have significantly impacted life expectancy.

In recent history, China has controlled the flow of rare earth materials from mine to factory. The products of unregulated mines such as those described are often distributed by Congo Dongfang Mining International, which forms a subsidiary of the Chinese company Huayou Cobalt, suppliers of the household tech brands Apple, Dell and Microsoft. In addition, there have been numerous reports of terrible working conditions for the assembly workers in the Chinese factories of Apple et al, pushing some to the extremes of suicide. What can be done to try and avoid purchasing products of such dubious origin, and generate a real demand for more ethically sourced, environmentally-friendly alternatives?


The approach I have used so far is a not-so-distant cousin of freeganism, whereby one’s moral responsibility is reduced by only buying second-hand versions of these products. Whilst this avoids any money slipping directly into the pockets of those who originally funded the production process, it does not negotiate around the problem of indirect profit via unintended product advertisation due to the omnipresent Logo.

There has been some interest in recent times in the concept of a more ethically responsible smartphone, manifesting notably in the Fairphone. Whilst these devices provide a clear step forward from the standard, they come with quite a price tag and are therefore unlikely to attract many current smartphone users.

What many might consider to be the most extreme solution is the modern equivalent of the 1970’s ‘society dropout’: the smartphone quitter. Someone with concerns about the social, environmental and ethical implications of the smartphone era may wish to abandon it entirely. This approach is akin to the half-ironically titled digital detox, and has been made fashionable by the much anticipated relaunch of the retro 3310, and the consequent sky-rocketing of price tags on old Nokia models on eBay.

Acting on the problems discussed here does not necessarily need to involve the abandonment of one’s current lifestyle. The issue of rare earth material scarcity can be combatted by effectively recycling old, unwanted or broken phones and computer hardware, ensuring that the valuable ‘magic’ substances needed for technology production are not wasted, lost in landfill sites. To quote Friends of the Earth again,

“Our purchasing choices do matter – but they can’t create change on the scale or at the speed needed. It’s companies, not customers, who understand the complexities of their operations and are in a position to address how they make products.”

As such, there is a real need for commercial rare material recycling schemes, as well as domestic ones – something with Friends of the Earth and others are campaigning towards.



Mining and production problems are not limited to domestic digital products, either…

The opinion of most environmentalists and perhaps even general public opinion is that renewable sources of electricity provide the clearest path towards tackling climate change. Wind power is a popular source in Europe at the minute, with vast swathes of wind farm being rolled out across fields and oceans across the continent. Denmark is now even able to run entirely on wind power on some days. In the UK, wind power is now the cheapest mode of electricity generation. In many areas, a switch to the renewables-only electricity provider Ecotricity will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but also your bills. At the same time, the UK, where coal power first started out, is close to abolishing the energy source, recently going coal-free for the first time since the industrial revolution (although there are plans for new generation, coal-biomass plants…).

However, renewable energy generators require the same rare earth materials discussed above, and in much greater quantities. To make a set of earphones requires a tiny amount of neodymium, whilst a high-spec wind turbine requires around two tonnes of the stuff, causing a real demand for the rare earth material.

Renewables are frequently held to be the best way forward. However factors related to their construction are not always included in the carbon-intensity evaluation. Consider the plot of the GHG emission intensity of various common modes of electricity generation below, taken from a World Nuclear Association study. As one would expect, the fossil fuels are held to be most polluting and renewables like hydro and wind power being the least. What may be surprising, however, is the evidence suggesting solar power is in fact much more polluting than nuclear power. Whilst solar panels generate electricity from sunlight alone, their manufacture can be rather carbon intensive. The processes of mining and transporting raw materials and assembling the solar technologies are not things which we are currently able to do without GHG emission.

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions

There are, inevitably, emissions involved with the construction of nuclear plants, especially in building cooling towers out of concrete. However, the high efficiency of nuclear power and the low efficiency of solar power stack the odds toward the former in terms of which is the least carbon intensive in the long run.

Of course, the study results here cannot form a conclusive proof that any one energy source is optimal. Taken along with the discussion of mining above, we make the important observation to be wary of climate tribalism – no one mode of electricity generation is inherently better than all the others, since there are so many factors to consider. In my opinion the greenest way forward must lie in some combination of the less environmentally damaging sources, rather than a wholesale transfer to nuclear or to wind power, say. Remaining to be debated are the proportions.



If you are interested in rarity and usefulness of some earth metals, you may well enjoy the excellent geoscience exhibition currently on at the Natural History Museum in London, also covering topics such as earthquakes and volcanoes.

7 thoughts on “The murky path to high-tech production

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