We are using more and more of our natural resources. Extraction of raw materials — by mining, drilling, or logging — tripled between 1970 and 2010.
In addition, today’s technologically complex products demand a wider variety of minerals and components than in the past. A modern computer chip, for example, contains over 60 different elements — more than five times the number used in the 1980s.
The increased extraction of minerals and other resources has wide-ranging negative consequences, including pollution, social disputes, and even conflict.
Who consumes resources? Who bears the consequences?
Natural resources are distributed unequally across the globe — and so is their consumption. The material footprint of North America — 30.6 tonnes per capita in 2017 — dwarfs the footprint of the rest of the world. Africa’s footprint is the smallest: less than 3 tonnes per capita.
Most resources are extracted where consumption is low. Increased global demand has spurred exploitation in Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific, boosting exports of primary commodities.
Large extractive projects significantly change their environment — usually for the worse — and can trigger or exacerbate conflicts. Discord and discontent can be spurred by competition over land use and water supplies, by pollution and environmental degradation, or by the displacement of communities. Often, the money and other benefits from these projects are not distributed equitably, and for workers the conditions can be harsh and often dangerous.
Did you know you have gold in your pocket?
As use of smartphones rise, so do their environmental and human costs
Today, two thirds of the world’s youth between the ages of 18 and 35 own a smartphone — a startling figure, as just a decade ago, these devices were virtually unknown. While small in size, smartphones have a big impact on the environment — and on the people who work in or live near the mines that produce the raw materials for their components.
35 to 40 mobile phones contain the same amount of gold as one tonne of ore.
Rare earth elements: Toxic lakes in China
Rare earth elements are used in smartphones and green energy technologies like wind turbines. Toxic chemicals and radioactive waste from China’s booming mining industry, which produces 85 percent of the world’s rare earth elements, has caused abnormal plant growth, killed animals, and forced villagers to stop farming near mines and processing plants. In 2016, the Chinese government introduced regulations designed to counter the disastrous effects of rare earth elements production on the environment and human health, but it is too early to tell if these steps will be effective.
Conflict minerals: Financing fighting in the DRC
Tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold — all used in the manufacture of smartphones — are mined in eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where government forces, neighbouring countries, and several militia groups fight for dominance. Both state and non-state armed groups use these minerals to fund conflicts, including the Second Congo War (1998-2003). Some governments and international organisations have designated these elements as ‘conflict minerals’, but their efforts to regulate or reduce the trade have had only limited success.
Tin is used in the solders that hold together the parts of smartphones and other electronic gadgets. The Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung produce large amounts of tin, which brings money, but also devastation. Barren landscapes pitted with craters have replaced forests and farms, while out at sea, dredgers and ships suck up the seabed in search of tin, damaging coral reefs and polluting the ocean. Small-scale miners risk being buried in mud if their pits collapse. Working conditions are harsh and dangerous for all miners, but especially for the 6,500 children who labour in some of the mines.
Bauxite is essential for the production of aluminium, a much-needed material for smartphone casings, but mining it can have serious negative consequences. In Hungary, a dam holding bauxite waste sludge burst, triggering a tidal wave that flooded the town of Kolontár, killing ten people and forcing 8,000 to evacuate. The toxic sludge contaminated kilometres of rivers and hectares of farmland. Heavy rains and human error probably caused the dam to break.
Peru: Pollution and profits of gold mining
Peru is one of the world’s major producers of gold. As market prices rose in the 1990s, gold mining expanded into remote rural regions. Many large-scale industrial mines opened in the Andes, while more informal small-scale miners tried their luck in the Amazon region.
Gold mining requires large amounts of land and water, and uses chemicals and heavy machinery that can cause massive environmental pollution. By altering the landscape and contaminating local ecosystems, mining has dire consequences for the livelihoods and culture of communities in the Peruvian Andes. At the same time, the profits generated by industrial mining are not often shared with the projects’ neighbours, widening the economic gap between rich and poor. This frustrating situation — bearing the negative consequences without reaping the benefits — has increased the grievances of people living near the mining projects. In some cases, protests have led to violent clashes between local communities and government security forces.
Informal gold mining, which is common in Peru’s remote and rural southeastern rainforest, threatens not only the environment, but also people’s health and well-being. To hunt for gold, these small-scale miners clear-cut the rainforest, contributing to the loss of 12,500 hectares between 2013 and 2016. This reduces biodiversity and damages indigenous livelihoods.
To extract gold from the topsoil, the miners use mercury, which contaminates the water and soil. This toxic metal harms not only local flora and fauna, but also the miners themselves and other people living in that area.
To minimise social and ecological damage — and to collect taxes — the Peruvian government is eager to formalise the in-formal mining sector. While its efforts include promoting environmental protection, its intervention has also prompted conflict between the state and local miners who fear the government will take away their livelihoods.
How to reduce the impacts of mining
We must drastically reduce our demand for raw materials
Most people exchange their smartphone for a new model after just two years. This rising demand for smartphones requires more and more minerals, and increases the precarious social and environmental conditions in mineral-producing countries. Currently, only five percent of the metals used in electronics are recycled. But even if we recycle every metal used in our phones, it would not be enough to meet our huge demand. The only solution is to consume less.
We must change the way we mine
Companies that use minerals in their products should ensure that their components are sourced according to the highest environmental and social standards. Exporting governments and mining companies must:
Fairphone rethinks smartphones
The Fairphone is an example of an initiative that strives to create positive social and environmental impacts throughout the phone’s lifecycle. Fairphone encourages local mining companies to produce materials in a fair and conflict-free way. To date, Fairphone has succeeded in changing the production of four of its components: tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold, and will tackle cobalt next. Fairphone also seeks to make individual parts of their phones easily replaceable and supports recycling electronic products.