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The environmental cost of an iPhone

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Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon/NASA Earth Observatory

The Bayan Obo mine in 2006. The image is false-colored, showing vegetation in red, grassland in light brown, rocks in black and water surfaces in green. Two circular open-pit mines are visible, as well as a number of tailings ponds and tailings piles.

Thanks to advances in metallurgy and integrated circuit design, computers are working themselves into every aspect of our lives. From appliances to smart phones, it seems like everything these days has a microprocessor buried somewhere inside it. But remember, all of these pieces come from somewhere, and the metals they’re made from aren’t easy to come by. They are called “precious metals,” after all.

From the earth to your smart fridge, rare earth metal mining consists of three stages: mining, refining and disposal, all of which create waste byproducts. In the case of electronics, a lot of these waste products are r (http://www.electronicstakeback.com/toxics-in-electronics/wheres-the-harm-extraction/)adioactive because rare earth elements are usually mixed in with thorium or iridium, two radioactive substances.

To separate the minerals from their radioactive neighbors, large amounts of sulfates, ammonia and hydrochloric acid are used. With today’s refinement technology, producing one ton of refined rare earth metals produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste. And the waste doesn’t stop after the electronics are produced.

Another large threat to the environment is the disposal of electronics after they’ve completed their life cycle. Throwing a smart phone in the trash leads to a plethora of environmental toxins. From the chemicals in the battery to the plastics in the case, these materials eventually make their way into soil or waterways, damaging these natural resources in the process.

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A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that out of the 120 million mobile phones purchased in the U.S. in 2011, only 12 million mobile phones were collected for recycling. That's 10 percent. 

According to the United Nations Environmental Program, 90 percent of electronic waste ends up being illegally dumped. This occurs via a black market for exporting e-waste to countries with more lax environmental regulations. Countries such as Ghana and Vietnam take on the environmental burden of other countries' e-waste at a monetary and human cost.

Once the waste has been dumped, the metals are extracted to be re-sold and reused. However, this isn't clean recycling. A simple way to extract metals from electronics is to burn the surrounding plastic, and it shouldn’t come as news to you that burning plastic is bad on many levels, from the air pollution it causes to the respiratory and neurological damage that occurs when humans breathe these fumes.

In the countries where such recycling practices take place, not much is done in the way of worker safety. Studies have found alarming levels of toxic compounds linked to cancer, developmental damage and other health problems present in both these workers and those that live near these plants.

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To combat this growing trend, many companies and countries are pushing legislation and practices in order to minimize these impacts.

Apple has made the claim on its website that it wants to move toward using 100 percent recycled parts in the coming years, and the UN is continuing to create policy that will apply harsher punishments to those who illegally dump electronic waste.

In the meantime, the need for the latest gadgets continues to propel this problem forward. One of the biggest surges in electronic waste is around Christmas, when people are getting their newest tech-toys and getting rid of the old ones.

Maybe the next time you want the newest iPhone, take a moment  first to stop and think about what consequences for both people and the planet stem from this decision. While just being conscious of the impact won’t solve the problem, by realizing the weight of this decision, we can maybe slow it down some. What's your new tech-toy really worth?


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