Attempting to Balance the Environment, Economics, and Ethics

There are many different aspects to consider with perusing a balance between the desire for electronics and the pursuit of a healthy environment and economy. The need and longing to purchase electronics can be seen by some as important enough to outweigh the problems that transpire, while conversely maintaining the environment may be seen as more valuable. Individuals may consider the ethical concerns surrounding mining for precious metals or e-cyclying versus reasons people want electronics; work, school, hobbies or entertainment. These types of uses for electronics also create a need for new and improved electronics, which requires an increase in precious metals coming from mining or e-recycling which demands consideration for both issues. Ethical concerns arise when considering manufacturing and disposal of electronics due to varying work conditions of those who build or recycle them. Furthermore, these rare metals and electronics are valuable, creating a market and economic climate to be measured against the previous issues. Stability within the economy in conjunction with environment and ethical concerns for workers drives an examination of sustainable practices and policies.
The people who live in and around Guiyu, China experience the complications of recycling e-waste first hand. Many people come from different parts of China in order to find work as an e-cycler. It is illegal to export e-waste from first world countries to poverty stricken countries and yet it is a common occurrence. Many of these poor countries focus less on e-recycling as an environmentally friendly behavior and more on e-recycling as a form income, by extracting precious metals and melting down plastic for resale. Many of the workers in Guiyu expressed mixed feelings about the process of stripping these electronics for resale. While they are well aware it is hazardous to their health and the environment, they also take into consideration the valuable source of revenue.[1] This widespread contamination of the environment in China and other countries and their inhabitants should make citizens worldwide apprehensive. Ethical, environment, and economical issues should be important to the leading contributor, the benefactors, or those who are most harmed in this situation.
The United Nations partnered with a watchdog group called Basel Action Network  in order to make the transport of e-waste from first world countries to poor countries illegal and fight the continuing illegal importation. They formed an e-waste reduction program called “Solving the E-Waste Problem,” or StEP. Compiled of five task forces; Policy, ReDesign, ReUse, Recycle, Capacity Building the group attempts to address multiple layers regarding e-waste. Made up of various task-forces, goals such as studying procedures surrounding e-waste, promoting consideration towards the full life-cycle of an electronic before manufacturing are of main concern. They also consider how to prolong use of already purchased electronics by consumers, for example promoting upgrades instead of replacements, therefore, taking into consideration every part of the equation.[2]
Klaus Hieronymi, 3rd from left, at recycling conference
The StEP initiative was co-founded by Klaus Hieronymi- a sustainability advocate, author of e-waste management books, and the chairman of Hewlett Packard’s environmental board. Since he is working with HP it is assumed he is invested in manufacturing electronics, but his behaviors communicate he is also aware of criticisms HP has experienced, as well as a desire to promote proper e-waste management.[3] His work provides an example of what can be perceived as balance between the manufacturers of electronics and those who wish to protect the environment and the people affected by e-waste. Promoting the reduction of e-waste and proper e-cycling practices are actions anyone at any level can take. While mining for precious metals, manufacturing and selling electronics, and e-waste disposal can be complicated topics, recycling our own electronics is a straightforward first step we as individuals can contribute to a healthier world.       

Why do we need to update?

One of the big issues with rare earth metals is the fact that people do not recycle them.  Instead, we go out and buy the newest iPhone and do god knows what with the old one.  But what is the reason we update so much?  Sure, the next iPhone might have a bigger screen or maybe have another cool feature that is advertised really well but we all know you’re only going to use the thing for texting and keeping updated on the latest social media.  This is not in any way good for companies, but if we just kept the model we had and let that last us until a few more updates came out instead of buying the very next model, not only could we save money, but we could help...what’s that? Yes! Save the earth!

This seems a good compromise anyway.  If you wait for a few updates to pass you by, you can 1) not worry about all the inevitable bugs and issues that come with your new piece of technology 2) actually save some money and 3) help cut back on the demand for these rare earth metals that are causing so many issues in the world right now.

So next time you go out and decide that you need the new, curvy iPhone, think again at how ridiculous it is to need something you actually already have!

Your Cell Phone is Radioactive!

When cell phones came out, I always heard people saying not to put them up to your head for too long, it’ll fry your brain.  Funny thing is, I don’t think that is too far off from being correct.  Radioactivity has been detected in rare earth metals and traces have been found in the mines, the waste deposits, and yes, in your electronics.  My questions however, if putting these phones next to your head is so bad, why is carrying them in your pocket for hours upon hours at a time never a concern to people?  Of all the places I could have radioactive issues, I don’t think down where my pockets are is the place that I want that.

Now this isn’t going to make you want to go out and recycle your phones or get rid of them in any fashion, but I do think it might be important to think about how we carry our electronics on our person.  For those of you who don’t know, cell phones can cause cancer! And in many cases they have.  So a little advice:

If you’re a female who just happens to be wearing pants without pockets on a certain day, which there is no problem with that, think twice before stuffing your phone down your bra.  Breast cancer is a big enough problem right now that I don’t think there needs to be any added reason why it might occur.  Maybe stuff your phone in your purse instead?  I know, how are you going to get notified about the newest Facebook status, or how are you going to know when your friends reply to your oh so important texts?  I get it, I along with the majority of people have an addiction to my cell phone as well.  But maybe turning up the volume might be a good idea?

There’s a new slogan! Turn up the volume, turn down the radiation!

This goes for guys as well.  No, I do not recommend wearing a man-purse or whatever they’re called, but maybe when you sit down somewhere, take it out of your pocket and lay it next to you instead.  Cut down on the time it’s pressed right up against your body.

Food for thought.

IBM Discovers Laptop Batteries Can Power Other Electronics!

As the world struggles to understand and solve the ecological problems created by the impressive technological advances of recent years, there is positive news implying that we are getting on track! IBM is using some of their resources to help resolve some of the ecological devestation that the technology that they, and their industry, have profited from over the years. IBM published a paper in which they propose a device called UrJar (a portmanteau of the Hindi word "urja" meaning energy, and "jar" meaning box) that enables laptop batteries to power other devices, like lights. Their study involved just five participants, "Five users (4 male, 1 female) participated in this study. Only one was a residential consumer, while the remaining were street-side vendors - two of them selling fast-food items, and two selling tea and cigarettes. One participant was between 20-25 years of age, three between 30-35 years, and one between 40-45 years. Two participants had an undergraduate degree, while one went to higher school, and two had only attended primary school."  You can read the whole paper here: .

They state that "discarded" Lithiom Ion batteries used to power laptops generate a "significant amount of e-waste." and that  "recycling Li-Ion batteries is not commercially viable". In other words recycling of these materials is not a current reality because it "still takes 6 to 10 times more energy to reclaim metals from recycled Li-Ion batteries as it does to produce these materials from recycled Li-Ion batteries as it does to produce these materials through other means, including fresh mining." 

The significance of this study and the present media hype on it warrants further analysis.

Alternatives to RRE's

"Green" power sources are becoming more and more popular. Various companies are looking towards solar power, electricity, and wind power, rather than crude oil (such as hybrid/electric cars). The problem with this is that these alternative energy sources use Rare Earth Metals. It seems like we are solving one problem, but creating another problem in the process.

Is there any hope to solve our need for energy?

According to the Futurium website, scientists are in the process of developing alternatives to RRE's. The company, LumiSands, has created a material that reduces the blue light that emits from LED's that has no rare earth metals. It is made out of silicon (

This is a small victory in the search to become less dependent on rare earth metals. While the problem may not be solved soon, our mission to spread the idea of recycling is a great way to reduce the amount of rare earth metals mined while others find alternatives.


The Need for E-Cycling Done Right

In 2013 it was estimated that China was the world’s largest dumping location for obsolete electronics, most of which came from other countries. A spokesperson from Greenpeace estimated over 70% of the world’s electronic waste, or e-waste, is ending up primitively recycled in China, instead of being recycled properly in the country it is derived from.[1] Recycling electronics (e-cycling) done wrong is harmful to the health of the workers, the community and the environment where it is performed. Without reducing the accumulation of e-waste as well as increasing the effectiveness of e-waste recycling facilities in the countries producing considerable amounts of e-waste, such as the United States, the e-waste is likely to continue to be illegally shipped to other countries to be disposed of. Although it is illegal to transport e-waste from the United States to other countries, it is still an occurring operation, one that drew numerous investigative reports by reputable news sources such as CNN, BBC as well as CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Both CNN and CBS separately visited one of the China’s largest e-waste sites, located in Guiyu, a town in southern China. They found Guiyu neighborhoods inundated with e-waste, much of it broken down and separated into piles to be consolidated. The town was reported to be so thick with air pollution from melting electronics it burned eyes and throats. It is said to contain rice paddies so contaminated by the melting of electronics, the locals wouldn’t even eat it. The reports further described Guiyu as a place where wild buffalo walk on glass from monitors, rivers run black with ash from burning down electronics and the corruption runs wild. CBS was told by Guiyu’s mayor’s office that they were not welcome to visit various recycling plants, only one they would be escorted to. They described being mugged when they tried to venture out on their own, having their soil samples taken and struggling to keep their cameras. The people in Guiyu explained to CBS they go through this process to sell the elements and plastic even though the work is toxic, stating it pays well, as much as the equivalent 8 American dollars a day.[2] One worker told CNN they sell their plastic to Foxconn, a company that manufactures electronics for Dell and Apple.

The process of breaking down electronics is especially hazardous for the worker’s health. Electronic waste is melted by blow torches to establish which elements are available to harvest. Hydrochloric acid is also used to strip valuable elements from the e-waste. As CNN’s video shows plastics added to vats of unknown fluid and mixed by workers’ bare hands, one can only image the health hazards. Shantou University in China reported Guiyu has the highest level of cancer-causing substances in the world. Workers, some very young, are also exposed to high amounts of lead, leading to lead poisoning which is known to cause developmental issues.[3] This widespread contamination of the environment and its inhabitants should be of concern to everyone across the world that comes into contact with electronics. It can be argued that if we are not part of the solution we are part of the problem. Considering one’s contribution to the e-waste problem may provide insight on how to become part of the solution.

Watch CNN’s video here.
Watch CBS’s video here.

The "In's" and "Out's" of E-Cycling

A common problem that comes about is what exactly should we do after our devices kick the bucket? There's probably a lot of these still sitting around your house not knowing what to do with them, maybe you're concerned about your personal information resurfacing after being discarded, or perhaps just the lack of proper information on how to dispose or your cell phones, computers, and electronic materials. Luckily, this is not as difficult as it sounds to get rid of your expired devices in a safe, secure, and efficient way.

Much of the world's electronic waste is not actually recycled but rather completely disregarded and thrown away carelessly.
"A great deal of what is labeled as “e-waste” is actually not waste at all; rather, it is whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for materials recovery. In 2009, approximately 25 percent of TVs, computer products, and cell phones that were ready for end-of-life management were collected for recycling. Cell phones were recycled at a rate of approximately 8 percent" (US EPA).
The United States Environmental Protection Agency has provided an excellent source for people to gain knowledge and locate accepted settings to dispose of products.

This is exceedingly helpful to know when that day comes when a phone, computer, television, monitor, you name it, decides to cross the great divide.

Look at these great tips before you go and donate or recycle your machine.


  • For your computer or laptop, consider upgrading the hardware or software instead of buying a brand new product.
  • Delete all personal information from your electronics.
  • Remove any batteries from your electronics, they may need to be recycled separately.
You can check you this link that takes you to some companies that offer options for recycling or donation.

Or if you can't find what you are looking for, these sites will take you to some suitable locations (this site is for mainly batteries) (search places to recycle anything imaginable!) (provides a source for e-cycling events near you) (this has a really cool energy calculator to show you your electronic use)

I was able to find plenty of convenient locations on Earth 911 to recycle some old cell phones I've been holding on to for a while.

E-cycling doesn't just help free up some clutter at home but there are some great environmental and social benefits for the community!

"Recycling your cell phone helps protect the environment in a number of ways. Cell phones are made from valuable resources such as precious metals, copper, and plastics—all of which require energy to mine and process. Recovering these materials by recycling avoids the need to mine and process new materials, which in turn, conserves our natural resources, and avoids air and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, we would save the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 24,000 US homes in a year.
Cell phones have a number of different metals in them which can be recycled. For every million cell phones we recycle, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. Recovering metals from used cell phones can reduce extraction of raw metals from the earth" (US EPA).
"If the cell phone and its accessories are in good working condition, some collection programs donate them to a number of worthy charities or provide them for sale to those who need them. In addition, many reuse and recycling programs use the proceeds of their programs to benefit charitable organizations, such as domestic violence, environmental causes, children’s safety, etc. Other recycling programs work with schools and other organizations to collect cell phones as fundraising ventures. The principal markets for refurbished cell phones extend beyond the US—availing access to modern communication technology to many people in developing economies with who would not otherwise be able to afford it" (US EPA).
Take some time to check out the US Environmental Protection Agency website and learn how you can help the community and environment, and at the same time get rid all your unused and inoperative devices!

Rethinking Your Technology

I think most of us know that technology is the most prevalent aspect of modern society. It's all around us! We are constantly being stimulated by computers, phones, MP3s, screens, and all sorts of electronic devices. When's the last time you checked your phone? I know it was probably only a few minutes ago for me. Being student as well we need to be constantly on the computer doing homework and assignments and it takes up a good part of our day just looking a screen non stop.
"We are now more wired than ever. Researchers from the University of Glasgow found that half of the study participants reported checking their email once an hour, while some individuals check up to 30 to 40 times an hour. An AOL study revealed that 59 percent of PDA users check every single time an email arrives and 83 percent check email every day on vacation" (WebMD).
All these devices are doing more harm than you may think. Having that constant stimulation can cause detrimental effect to our mental being. Some of the mental impacts relate to social capabilities and interactions. People who used their smart phones and devices a large amount were ones who experience the most influence. Heavy users of technology also could affect their physical health as well; headaches, insomnia, and stress are only some of the tolls that technology can cause harm. These habits can often lead to technology dependency and addiction...yes addiction. Just like anything else, too much of something can cause adverse impressions and prompt to fixation and reliance.

It's important to disconnect from technology can give your body as rest from continual use. Here is some great tips to help us all to control and manage a healthy device consumption!

  • Experiment with short periods of inaccessibility. Your life won't implode, Ferriss says. "As with any addiction, there is a period of withdrawal and anxiety."
  • Leave your cell phone and PDA at home one day a week. Saturday is a good day to cut off email and cell phone usage. "For most people, it will feel like a two-week vacation," Ferriss says. "The psychological recovery it offers is pretty unbelievable."
  • Set a "not-to-do list." Don't check email before 10 a.m. to avoid immediate reactive mode, Ferriss suggests. Set intervals to check email, for example, at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. Use an auto-responder to explain that you can be reached any time on your cell phone.
  • Eliminate rather than streamline whenever possible. Lose the RSS feeder, Ferriss says. "If you have an addictive impulse with tools, lose the tool," he says.
  • Hire a virtual assistant. "A big part of priority management is teaching others tasks," he says. "A big part is getting over yourself. You don't have a superhuman email checking ability."
  • Buddy up. Don't go it alone on the road to recovery, Hallowell says, because you're likely to revert to your old habits. Ask a colleague, administrative assistant, or spouse to help you enforce the new rules.
  • Learn moderation. "I'm not anti-technology," Hallowell says. "Some is good for you, but too much is really, really bad."

Uncharted Territory: Sourcing REEs In Space And Under The Sea

A recent concern surrounding the ever-increasing demand for new technology is the increasing prices and energy costs to extract the rare earth metals and materials used in producing it.  The questions now being asked by many is, “Will there be enough for us to continue our current high-tech lifestyle while continuing to transition to a renewable energy economy? Will we need to find new sources to meet future demand?” With the growth in demand of high-tech products and renewable energy, studies project that to transition the majority of our power and energy sources to renewables, the amount of rare earth metals needed would be hundreds of times more that we are currently mining. Although most rare earth metals are relatively common on earth’s surface, to extract them is both economically and environmentally exhaustive.
         In response to that, some companies have been looking for rare earth materials in unexpected areas: on the seabed and asteroids circling the Earth. In 2011, a Japanese team found deposits of rare earth metals in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean; materials collected from just one square kilometer in this part of the ocean will be able to provide one fifth of the annual global consumption. There have also been recent discoveries of precious metals and other in-demand earth materials near active volcanic fissure in various oceans. These are huge discoveries; however extracting materials from that deep in the ocean will be both costly and time-consuming. Considering the potential damage to marine ecosystems, much more research and planning has to occur before any of sort seabed mining begins.
         In addition to searching the ocean floors, companies have been looking at asteroids as a future source of rare earth metals. Planetary Resources, a company pioneering the search for REEs in space, claims that many of the metals needed in modern technology can be found in much higher concentrations that here on earth. That means more materials can be sourced from equally sized mines. There is, however, the extraordinary costs to consider associated with creating a mine on an asteroid. It may be decades before any significant extraction of materials comes from either potential location.

Asteroid Mining

Since the dawn of time mankind has looked up at the stars and wondered about the possibilities beyond the dirt under our feet, and in the 21st century we have technology that lets us explore more than ever before.  One major part of space exploration is the use of rare earth metals and furthering the distance we travel would require more of these than normal.  Scientists speculate that one of the ways to cut down on the amount of materials that is taken from earth into space is to begin mining on celestial bodies outside of our earth.

It has been talked about for years, decades even, about colonizing on other planets other than earth and one of the ways that this can be possible is by extracting the resources from those foreign planets rather than bringing them from earth.  Asteroids are currently the main focus for this plan because they have a higher chance of success rate for containing the metals that are creating issues here on earth.

Asteroids have a better potential for yielding the resources we would need and it would be more effective if we could transport resources from asteroids to a newly colonized planet rather than transporting directly from earth.  This saves on the amount that we have to use here on earth and the hazardous conditions that are here on earth would be less of an issue in space because the mining would likely be unmanned.

I think the main think to take away from this is that scientists are looking into new ways to collect these resources that on earth are becoming less accessible, more expensive, and creating radiation issues.  If funding for this could be granted, the amount of resources on earth that would need to be mined could be reduced.  The hazards that are being created would lessen and space exploration could expand at the same time.

Toxic Risks of Mining Rare Earths

Mining rare earth metals is something that China has been at the top of the charts for a long time, but as demand grows so do the amount of mining plants.  Countries like Malaysia and Brazil have been warned that mining in certain areas for these rare earths comes with a large risk of exposure to low-level radioactive element thorium.  Exposure like this has been directly related to the increased risk for lung, pancreatic and various other forms of cancers.

This is not to say that all mining sites of rare earth metals will have these risks, however the way some of these newer plants are keeping the waste and the site that they choose to dig are creating the risks for workers.  One specific site that is Bayan-Obo that has operated more than 40 years in China and is China’s largest rare earths project.  This site is reported by the Institute for Applied Ecology as having an 11 square-kilometer waste pond – that’s three times the size of Central Park in New York City!  According to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, China “has never actually worked out pollutant discharge standards for the rare earth industry.”

One thing that most people don’t realize is that the cellphone in their pocket or the laptop on their desk uses these metals that were mined from sites that have hints of radioactivity.  We look at nuclear power plants and set strict guidelines, but rare earth projects require the same amount of care in order to protect the environment from damages and this is not something that happens as often as it should.

Another company is Lynas who moved the processing of its rare earths to Malaysia because of tax inconveniences that were in place in Australia where the metals were mined.  According to my source, the way that Lynas plans to dispose of the wastewater through an open channel rather than sending the water through a closed pipeline.  Scientists say that this is going to emit low levels of carcinogenic radioactivity for centuries which will affect the citizens of Malaysia.  China has already seen many issues like this over the past decades, and third world countries are now facing the threats of this same effect because companies are refusing to take the necessary precautions to protect both their workers and the people around their facilities.

The E-Waste Burden and Recycling Industry Profit

As if it weren't already bad enough that the world is dumping its discarded e-waste in tucked away corners of the earth, closer inspection reveals that much of the waste being shipped has no worth outside of the raw components. Areas of northwestern Africa have been particularly inundated with shipments of e-waste. There are entire cities built around a thriving repair market, where bustling lines of shops sell essentially everything from cellphones to personal computers. The industry supports the community to a great extent, but does so at an enormous cost. This cost is known to the world, however, there is little talk of those that allow it to happen so freely.
At first the idea of a thriving port city that makes much of its livings through rehabbing old electronics sounds pretty good, maybe a little dystopian, but okay. However, if you look a little closer, you begin to realize that these port towns are absolutely inundated with daily shipments of e-waste. Not only that, but in reality much of each shipment is actual junk. Up to 75% of the contents of each shipping container is e-waste with no use or value outside of the meager price their raw materials fetch. These cities have little to no recycling capabilities and the most common approach is to dump it all together in vast deposits of deteriorating and toxic components. But why would these locations burden themselves with such vast amounts of waste? This question is hard to answer and things get murky fast.
On average, a typical shipping container of used electronics would cost around $5,000 dollars to import from the U.S. to Africa. However the price that some of those used electronics inside would fetch in Nigeria quickly covers this cost, and the remaining electronics shipped are typically completely useless. Much of these shipments happen in an unregulated market place where electronic recyclers rule and set market prices. These companies have near constant business due to the rapid pace of the electronic industries growth, and also receive incentives to take on additional waste that is difficult to recycle and the least cost-effective.

The majority of this waste, 44%, is comprised of batteries, fridges, cooling and heating components and other items that are not typically considered e-waste and have no redeeming value. Importers of used electronics will agree to take on certain amounts of this waste in return for higher portions of quality useable electronics. There is little to no regulation in place and it is not uncommon for inexperienced buyers to be sold shipments by the pound containing almost no usable material. The e-recycling business is a double-edged industry to say the least.