An ad on TV urges Kiwis to say goodbye to oil by changing to electric vehicles and machinery.
Emotive stuff. A spokesperson for the advertiser says: “We don’t need to be importing and burning fossil fuels for transport when we have better, healthier and cheaper options.”
Hmmm, healthier – for whom? I wonder how electric car owners feel when they see this picture?
Picture: Congolese kids picking up Cobalt mud.
There is a dark side to modern technology: cool smartphones; flat-screen TVs; laptops and notepads; and the network, built upon millions of hard disk drives scattered around the world, which allows us to surf the web, work in the cloud, stream movies and have visual calls and meetings. We do our bit to reduce CO2 emissions – so, we replace our energy-inefficient incandescent light bulbs with low energy LEDs. Energy companies promote renewable energy increasingly powered by wind farms.
But what do we know about the materials needed to drive these innovations?
An environmental reporter once asked: “what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river?” The answer is Lithium. The mining of Lithium in many countries as far afield as China and Bolivia is causing damage to local environments, particularly water sources.
Cobalt is a key metal in modern batteries, especially those used for electric cars and wind turbines. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home of more than 50% of the world’s cobalt – child labour is widespread. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Tesla and Dell are named in a US lawsuit brought by families of children killed or injured while mining in the DRC.
Few will know what Rare Earth Elements (REE) are. Although labelled rare they are not especially so in nature. The 17 elements go by some very unfamiliar names such as Scandium, Lanthanum, Neodymium and Ytterbium but they underpin modern technology – including wind turbines, hybrid and electric cars, computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, lasers and high performance magnets.
The chemical properties of the REE make them difficult to separate from surrounding materials and from one another. These qualities also make them difficult to purify. Current separation methods generate a great deal of harmful waste to extract just small amounts of REE from the ore. Waste from the processing methods includes radioactive water, toxic fluorine, and several acids.
Picture: Toxic slurry being pumped into a REE tailings dam in China
Improper management of mining waste (tailings) can lead to many types of disaster to the local environment. If a dam is not constructed properly there can be runoff poisoning the local water supply. Poorly-built tailings dams collapse from time to time releasing their toxic waste – killing people and submerging villages and farmland.
Picture: Mud released by a failed tailings dam in Brazil. 270 people died.
The mining industry consists of several western giant multinationals (Glencore, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American) and a multitude of smaller local entities. The mining community has been making efforts to clean up their act. The Responsible Minerals Initiative has 380 participants, yet the industry is still plagued by major disasters (including in mines belonging to some of the world’s largest mining companies) and face accusations of ‘greenwashing’ – selectively reporting their progress on sustainability.
The most recent mining disaster is Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000 year old sacred aboriginal sites in Western Australia. An Australian government report concludes:
“The events immediately preceding the destruction of the rock shelters also reveal Rio Tinto’s legalistic approach to heritage protection, including a self-interested reliance on outdated laws and unfair agreements containing gag clauses prohibiting PKKP from critiquing the operations of the company and restricting their rights to access state and federal heritage protections without first obtaining the company’s consent.”
As we all seek to reduce our environmental footprint we need to be aware of the system impact of our actions. We may feel happy with our new electric car – but are we happy that villagers in China suffer from skin sores and lesions caused by REE-tailings water contaminating their water supply – or that Congolese kids are missing out on education digging up cobalt to help power their batteries?
We don’t need to stop technological progress but we can take steps to get companies to clean up their act. Let companies know that we care and keep pressure on them to be transparent about their supply chains – are these as sustainable as they claim their end-products to be?
Second – recycle. Switzerland’s e-waste recycling system is a model for the world – how are we doing here? The issue facing recycling of e-waste should provide enough fodder for hundreds of university research projects – not to mention chemists exploring green chemistry solutions to mineral extraction. What did you do with your old phone?
Last, we can support the international NGOs such as International Rights Advocates, Earthjustice, and Greenpeace, often working with UN organisations as well as local action groups, to force mining companies to literally ‘clean up their act’ and take greater care of the environments and the people where they mine.