6 Shocking Ways Your Phone Is Destroying The Planet

Tech companies are basically 'Captain Planet' villains with stock tickers.
6 Shocking Ways Your Phone Is Destroying The Planet

We do a lot of things knowing that they aren't great for the environment. We leave the faucet running while we brush our teeth, we throw out tons of food because it looks misshapen, and we use hairspray even though we know damn well we've been bald for over 15 years. But surprisingly, our worse 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 basically Captain Planet villains with stock tickers. Confused? Allow us to explain:

The Internet Causes 2 Percent Of All Carbon Pollution

We all know that the internet doesn't simply exist. You're not reading these words because the Universe willed them into existence on your screen -- they're being provided to you courtesy of a massive data center somewhere. Imagine the warehouse from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, except with never-ending server racks instead of mystical artifacts and shitty alien MacGuffins.

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, which means our GIF consumption is as destructive for Mother Earth as keeping billions of pounds of metal in the air.


If you masturbated using your imagination instead of porn a couple times a week, you could literally help save the planet.

The problem isn't that we're running too many servers, however -- 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.

And that 2 percent is only the beginning. 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 inexhaustible need to attach Bluetooth to everything.

Your Phone's Battery Is Made From Human Suffering

Contrary to popular folklore, batteries aren't tiny metal boxes full of electricity. They rely on complex combinations of metals like graphite, cobalt, and lithium reacting and transferring ions, which are then stored and allow you to expend them on powering your vibrator. Isn't science wonderful? It's such a shame, then, that these magic metals are mined in a way that maximizes misery and despair every step of the way.

In China, for instance, the mining of graphite has caused entire villages to be contaminated with thick clouds of graphite dust. The processing of the raw recently mined graphite is kicked up into the atmosphere, thus bukkake-ing local villages and dwellings in Mother Nature's glittery jetsam, which in turn kills crops, poisons water supplies, and contributes to massive disease outbreaks. As you'd also expect, neither the government nor the company responsible give a hoot. Every local cleanup effort so far has failed, not because it's too big to handle but because the suits figured out that it's cheaper PR to violently suppress journalist investigations than to clean up their mess.

6 Shocking Ways Your Phone Is Destroying The Planet
Michael Rocinson Chavez/The Washington Post

Though maybe the media blackout isn't the one to be worried about.

In the Congo, the mining of cobalt -- a vital ingredient in every battery ever -- is a massive part of the economy, employing 100,000 people to mine up to 25 percent of the world's supply. However, cobalt miners work for little to no pay in "artisanal mines," a fancy Starbucks term for a type of mine that has no safety features and is dug purely by hand. (You'll notice that there were no upsides in that sentence.) Oh, and a significant portion of the miners are children. We probably should have mentioned that earlier. One study by UNICEF estimated that 40,000 children are employed in cobalt mining, by sheer virtue of the fact that kids are a) tiny and b) hilariously expendable in an industry that already doesn't value human life.

In Chile, meanwhile, lithium mining has resulted in the exploitation of indigenous groups. Very similar to how our nation was bought from Native Americans for some beads and a lot of violence, techbros and mining companies are sweeping up ancestral lands belonging to the Atacamas. In exchange for extracting billions of dollars in "white gold," these companies gave the Atacamas a handful of schools, sewage systems, and other public amenities ... only to cheat them out of so much money that they can't afford to maintain all of their new infrastructure. But the good news is that this doesn't really matter, as all the mining screws with the local water supply so much that it might make the land barren and eventually uninhabitable in the very near future anyway.

But hey, check out the battery life on our phone! 16 hours and only at 54 percent! Totes worth it.

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. There were no upstart tech companies, no mood rooms or beanbag chairs -- 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, however? Spill a bunch of dangerous chemicals into the ground.

Unlike creating software in your mom's garage, the process for making physical computer chips is still industrial. A whole litany of solvents and degreasers are involved -- chemicals like trichloroethylene, which are super-dangerous to human health and shouldn't under any circumstances make their way 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 -- something which was discovered in the 1980s and led to the EPA (back in the days when we had one) blanketing the area in warning signs and red tape.

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Paul Mison/Dotspotting

It's like a wacky citywide scavenger hunt where the grand prize is renal failure!

But that's all in the past, right? It's not like dozens of tech millionaires and billionaires are now walking around on toxic soil, right? Nope, the chemicals are still in the groundwater, and unfortunately for the companies that have made Silicon Valley their home, 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. But you try convincing a bunch of Silicon Valley coders that vaping is bad for you.

You know that cutesy statue garden that Google built to celebrate having made a phone, because that's what we do nowadays? 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.

6 Shocking Ways Your Phone Is Destroying The Planet
Runner1928/Wiki Commons

Just sayin' ... there's probably a reason that grass is so patchy.

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

It's unlikely that you're ever going to visit the town of Baotou in Mongolia, but we've got some travel tips for you if you do: Don't. The only tourist attraction is the local lake, and unless you're a mutant who loves to bathe in muddy concoctions of acid, industrial effluent, and radioactive sludge, you should stay several hundred miles away from it.

Like everything else bad in this world, 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, is a pain in the ass that 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. Imagine the devil's septic tank, and you're halfway there.

6 Shocking Ways Your Phone Is Destroying The Planet
Liam Young/Unknown Fields

Lake Baotou: Come for the scenic views, stay because you've died of toxic exposure.

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. But maybe there's a silver lining. Maybe the mutations will give us all cool tails.

Your iPhone's Screen Is Poisoning Chinese Workers

In the days of yore, 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. This incident is now mainly used as a silly anecdote about how primitive and stupid old-timey people. Nothing like that could ever happen today. Most of us don't even wear watches anymore, we use our phones to ... oh.

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.

Unbeknownst to the workforce, their 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 shockingly, 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 fuck off back home to their village. They're nice like that.

Your Phone Is Unrecyclable

Recycling is good. That's something thousands of hours of Saturday morning cartoons and reruns of the crying Native American PSA has taught us. So if, for instance, you were in charge of inventing the latest iteration of a gadget that next to everyone on the planet is guaranteed to own, it'd stand to reason to make that shit recyclable. Yes? Congratulations! You're officially smarter than everyone in the R&D departments of Apple, Samsung, Google, and every other tech giant that ever made a smartphone.

Now, to be fair, your smartphone isn't unrecyclable because those guys 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 a complex matter, so it has always been a choice between focusing on increased recyclability or increased functionality, and we have always gone for the one that lets us watch the whole of The Defenders on the can in one go.

It's a market problem that was thrown into smart relief most recently when Samsung accidentally built and then recalled 4.3 million potential smart bombs. Unable to be repaired, refurbished, or resold to consumers who don't want to browse Twitter dressed like they're in The Hurt Locker, they needed to find a way of disposing of them that isn't setting them on fire, i.e. something environmentally conscious. Too bad we haven't figured that one out yet.

6 Shocking Ways Your Phone Is Destroying The Planet
via CNN Money

"We're trying to to work the 'not setting our users on fire' part ..."

There are 50 rare elements in each phone, from indium (for the touchscreen) to neodymium (for the speakers) to cobalt (for batteries). 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, y'know?

And it's not like we can 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 -- or even, at the grander level, the self-destructive nature of consumerism. A discussion that we're positive will happen any day now.

Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook. He also has a newsletter about depressing history, if you're into that sort of thing.

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