The Externalities of The West

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 1:36 AM

To most in the developed world, it would seem that society is in the midst of an ever-expanding period of technological growth. Everyday (or at least so it seems) a newer, faster processor is made. Everyday a more capable cell phone is released. And everyday, computing power overall seems to reach and breach its previous ceiling. One might think that along with these ever growing capabilities that the world's problems would be more approachable, more manageable. This is certainly true to some extent, but it is the hidden issues of this rapid growth that have many wondering about the true cost to both society and the planet itself. Case in point, the rare earth elements used in the production of nearly every modern electronic device.

Here is Adjoa, a nine your girl who sells water in a bag, to the works.

Rare earth elements are defined as the group of 17 chemical elements with the atomic numbers 21, 39, 57, and 71. Despite their classification, these elements are not actually all that rare. What makes them scarce is the fact that they are typically found in low concentrations and scattered amongst other mineral deposits. This scarcity has done nothing to stop the demand for them, particularly from the electronics industry, which utilizes them extensively in many common devices. The issue, however, is that once these devices are discarded or replaced by newer versions, there is very little effort being made to reclaim these elements. Increasingly often, global populations have created e-waste zones. These toxic environments are where much of yesterday’s technology now lies in smoldering, virulent, deadly mounds and can be found in locations such as Africa, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and many others.

The primary reason that reclamation efforts have been lacking is that the concentrations of rare earth minerals in most technologies are very low. The average cell phone contains less than a gram. In contrast, the amount of metals such as copper, gold, and silver is higher than that found in mined ore. The process of extracting rare earth elements is uneconomical and often left to those in the global society with the most to lose. In many e-wastelands, the youngest citizens find that their only reliable (and I use that word extremely loosely) source of income is to delve into the waste, more often than not without any protective gear, and harvest these elements for pennies on the dollar. This illustrates a serious social problem which for too long has gone unaddressed; the developed world is benefiting from technological growth, while the under-developed world is being left to forage through toxic waste just to eek out something that barely resembles a living.
Rahman Dauda, a twelve year old boy who has been burning E-waste for the past three years. "whenever possible I go to school," says Dauda.

In addition to the social impact of the use of rare earth minerals, their use also presents serious environmental issues. As previously stated, rare earth minerals are found in very low concentrations and scattered amongst other deposits. The mining techniques used to extract ore and then separate out the rare earth minerals are extremely invasive. They have both irreparably scarred landscapes across the globe as well as brought to the surface many dangerous and harmful elements in the process, such uranium and thorium. This makes the mining, extraction, and disposal of waste extremely dangerous processes. This, along with the blatant social issues, is why there needs to be much more efforts focused on reclamation in a safe and ethical manner. It is profoundly unfair for the most in need to shoulder this burden while those with privilege enjoy the benefits.

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