Rethink Buying Cheap Electronics This Holiday

Now that thanksgiving has passed and the holiday shopping season is officially kicking off. Our society and economy very effectively ingrain temptation to spend a lot of money over the next month,and an even deeper desire to save money. It is worth taking a moment to meditate on how you are making purchase decisions.  It's possible that our desire to preserve our bank account and our earth can be mutually reinforcing. All it takes is a little forethought. 

With the bombardment of advertisements and news reports surrounding Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it is difficult  not to feel you need to dash to the nearest Big Box or to your computer to start spending. After all, "these deals won't last!"

But maybe the products won't last. Last year, a friend rushed to Walmart on Thanksgiving to purchase a new $100 flat-screen TV with the brand name "Element". A few months later it was broken so he threw it in the trash. His disappointment was in the wasted money and time, but the wasted rare earth elements also hold an ecological impact which went, likely, went unnoticed.

What I'm illustrating here is that you can do the earth and the wallet a favor by simply not springing to purchase for the sake of a "deal". Rare Metals highlights many of the issues surrounding key resources in electronics.. Being judicious in our electronics consumption can have a positive (or at least neutral) ecological effect, even when acting out of our own self interest. By not buying hardware that isn't built to last, you and the world will be better off

Although I may be understating the difficulty of suppressing the urge to jump on apparent deals on electronics, I hope that simply remembering to take a few moments to consider purchases can help.

A few things to keep in mind:

1. While you can  find good deals during these holiday sales, consider how long you expect that product to last. Are you buying it for yourself, or others? If it is a gift, don't you want it to be meaningful to the recipient for much longer than the just the moment they open it?

2. What may appear to be a great deal may be nothing more than raising the "original 
price" and then promoting "40% off" as though it were a remarkable deal only available for a limited time. Check out  camelcamelcamel which charts price changes on products over time.

3. If buying low-end electronics, you will be more likely to suffer from buyers remorse do to the lack of quality. Remember the old adage, "quality over quantity?" Buying low quality/off-brand electronics has a good chance of being a cheap thrill that will not last.

For the sake of your wallet, the environment, and whomever the product is for, remind yourself to take a moment to consider whether or not it is truly a wise purchase.

Lithium Batteries

The lithium-ion battery has become the ideal source of power for current technology. Our cellphones and laptops run on them. The development of lithium-ion batteries has allowed new technology to run at higher density capacities, compared the nickle-cadmium battery. And has a reduced chance of self-discharge (about half the chance of nickle-cadmium batteries) thereby, lowering the chance of these batteries ruining our new technology. But the problem with lithium-ion batteries is the short life span. They normally last from 2 to 3 years (and will age even if they are not in use). So even if we do keep our "old" technology, our battery will need to be replaced often. I have personally had to change my battery for my laptop 3 times in the 5 years of owning it.

normal.img-000.jpgThe short life span of lithium-ion batteries and the high disposal rate of technology has caused a large amount to accumulate in landfills. A study was done on the possible harmful effects that lithium-ion batteries could cause through leaching. They found that because of the lead, lithium-ion batteries are considered hazardous. Depending on the regulations of the state, other material that leach from the batteries are also classified as hazardous. In California, the levels of copper, cobalt, and nickel are above the threshold for regulations. These elements are known to be toxic to humans as well as the ecosystem. Leaching into the soil harms future crops and the animals that come in contact with them.

The increasing production of new technology may only get worse as we develop more and consumers purchase more. But if we commit to reuse our old tech and recycle parts that we no longer can use (such as lithium-ion batteries), we can reduce and possibly eliminate a good amount of waste and the toxins that come from the technology.

It takes HOW long for that to break down?

We all know recycling is a good habit to get into, and doing so helps our environment. But what happens when our old electronics do end up in the landfills? How long do these things take to decompose? In short, things like glass, certain metals, and plastic never break down. By never I mean hundreds to a million years; which, in the scheme of things, might as well be never.  
Glass is known to not have a measurable decomposition period and is guessed that it will break down after a million years or more. Plastic is estimated at 100-500 years, which may not seem so bad but since plastic wasn’t invented till the early 1900’s, the piles of plastic will never visibly go down. Metal is a broad term and refers to many things. Small bits of metal found on circuit boards are obviously going to break down faster than larger pieces of metal (Phillips). Even if some of these things are actually decomposing, what is it doing to our environment?
When electronics break down they emit harmful and toxic substances like mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic and beryllium (Phillips). With enough time, all these things make their way into the soil, air and water. What is worse about this is that a lot of e-waste isn’t being thrown into certified and regulated landfills, but instead is being shipped overseas to places like China, India, Africa and the Far East. In the US, it is estimated that roughly 50-80 percent of waste collected for recycling is being illegally shipped overseas. When this happens, it is being dumped into villages where it contaminates the environment and poisons the health of the people living there (Williams).
When we properly dispose of our electronics we are saving our precious resources and energy. “Recycling aluminum uses less than 5 percent of the energy used to make the original product.” Producing glass from crushed, used glass requires 30 percent less energy than producing it from new materials (Stark State College).” When we recycle just these two things we are keeping harmful greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere and decreasing the quantity of these nearly non-decomposable materials.  

Phillips, James Lee. "Do Electronics Decompose?" Science-Demand Media. Web. 27 Nov. 2014. <>.
Stark State College. "Recycling Fast Facts." Stark State College. Web. 27 Nov. 2014. <>.
Williams, Maria. "Electronic Waste (E-Waste)." Toxipedia., 23 Mar. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2014. <>.

The Future of Rare Earth Metals

With the evidence of the need for alternatives to Rare EarthMetals compiling, institutes around the world are working tirelessly to find solutions. One institute here in America has shown particular promise by retrofitting a 3D printer to print metal compounds in the hopes of finding alternatives to the exhaustible materials we depend on. An innovation that could hold the solution to one of the largest problems we face today.

The majority of our modern technology depend on rare earth materials so it is pertinent to find a way to continue these advancements without continuing the ravaging of our natural recourses. The U.S. Department of Energy has spearheaded CMI, the Critical Materials Institute to combat this very issue. CMI is a Department of Energy Innovation Hub, focusing on alternative energy solutions in the age of sustainability. They have Awarded Ames Laboratory with over four and half million dollars to share in grants among the eighteen institutes across the united states that are working together under the CMI to find alternatives and solutions to our dependency on rare earth materials. 

Among many of Ames advancements in the field of rare earth material research is a retrofitted 3D printer.  After acquiring the LENS MR-7, manufactured by Optomec, they customized the printer to print metal alloys from recycled compounds for instant materials research. By combining different metal powders with lasers in an infinite number of compounds the team will be able to quickly assess an alloys potential to replace a rare earth material. Though the experiments are only in their infancy they have already been able to print an inch long rod of stainless steal in 20 seconds out of recycled materials, proving their potential to synthesize a solution.

3D printing holds many advantages to standard manufacturing and as the technology advances, its potential seems almost limitless. It is an additive manufacturing process, only constructing what is necessary, so it is far more efficient then our wasteful process of subtractive manufacturing, harvesting a large amount to use only a small piece.  Also, with the ability to create specific materials, thanks to Ames Lab, means it can potentially replace the entire system of mining and manufacturing.

Once this technology is perfected we will be able to manufacture material specific constructions from recycled recourses, never needing to mine a thing. If we can create easily accessible alloys that can replace our need for rare earth materials the destructive cycle we are stuck in can be reconciled. We currently consume more precious materials from our earth then she can produce. This trend cannot continue and only by using our technology in conscious and efficient ways can we continue to progress without the consequences of our consumption. With the ability to produce our own materials that are compounds of recycled resources, we can solve the huge issue of waste and consumption that plagues our generations in order to leave a cleaner, more sustainable environment for the future.

Tailings Pond

Today, in the Bayan Obo Mining District, lies one of the worlds largest waste ponds, filled with the waste from processing ore: these ponds are formerly known as tailings ponds. Baotou Steel Group (BSG), which owns the tailing pond, the pond is 4247 square miles in size and contains 9.3 million tons of rare earth metals, mixed in the waste. This is due to the larger amounts of ore needed for BSG’s larger scale manufacture of steel: further, by doing this, BSG is processing the least valuable part (ore) and leaving the most valuable part (REM) in the tailing pond.
Tailings pond shown here on the right

At current estimate, by Ma Pengqi, once at the head of BSG’s Rare Earth Institute, was quoted that the tailing pond could be worth as much as the Bayan Obo Mining District: which holds 70% of the world’s known reserves. In fact, BSG dumps 7 to 8 million tons of ore processing waste in the pond annually; furthermore, BSG’s subsidiary Huamei Rare Earths dumbs 2.1 million cubic meters of acid wastewater each year.

The health and environmental implication of this tailings pond is catastrophic. Currently, as a result of the water pressure in the pond, large amounts of saline sewage has seeped into the soil and into the phreatic layer, which is the first stable layer of water beneath the earth’s surface. Resulting in nearby groundwater becoming heavily contaminated. Furthermore, farm yields have decreased rapidly and much of the land is abandoned today. The seven villages containing more than 3,000 resident and 300 hectares of land have been ruined, as the groundwater cannot be used for irrigation, or for human consumption. Another major worry for this tailings pond is that the tailings dyke could fail, and with a tailings pond of this magnitude and being so close to Baotou and the Yellow River, a breach will be disastrous. To put the cherry on top, it is an earthquake-prone region.

Hazardous waste spewing out pipes coming from a REM smelting plant

Even though BSG could go out into their own backyard and process the tailings pond for REM’s, they simply do not as it is not cost effective for them, it is much more cheaper for them to keeping mining than to process the tailings pond. Also, not to forget, that the Chinese government has not given them any incentive to clean up their act.

A key aspect of this problem is not only that BSG has no incentive to clean up their act, but also, their current processing method is outdated and not at all environmentally friendly. Zhang Yong and Ma Pengqi both wrote an article on a new and efficient tailings process; it is said that this new method would recycle up to 87% of REM’s from the tailing dam. Sadly, the technology and facilities are still not there as it is still concept. On the other hand BSG could use a newer and more efficient method of processing there mines, first to extract REM’s, then second to extract the iron; this will lead to higher rates of utilization of REM’s, more efficient smelting, and lower pollution. But to get BSG or any other mines around the area to use it is another thing, as Ma Pengqi has been quoted saying, “the is no sense of urgency”.  

Which is one thing we should keep in mind, these huge firms making billions of dollars a year do not see it as urgent to keep are earth clean, and with our ever growing hunger for the next electronic device, we are supporting them and their actions.


REEs from China: Global Economic Impact

There is a global demand for electronics such as cell phones, computers and electronics needed for “green energy.” Rare earth elements (REEs) are required to build electronics and currently China is the primary location for mining and producing REEs. There is a worldwide dependence on China’s production and distribution of REEs giving China control over the global REE market. This allow them to regulate prices and supply of REEs, presenting an opportunity to analyze one of the many issues related to REEs; economics. Controlling the production of REE’s is economically beneficial to China because they need REEs to continue to be a predominant provider of electronics globally. Therefore, China is able to capitalize on the global need for both REEs and electronics.
 When examining the control over REEs and electronic production by China, the basic economic principle of supply and demand is something to be considered. The overall concept is the quantity, or supply, of a product combined with the need, or demand, for said product determines the price. If the supply of REEs is low or reduced while the demand remains high, prices will continue to grow. On the other hand, when the supply of REEs increases while the demand for REE’s remains high, prices should decrease. The United States is aware of their fiscal dependence on China in general which gives them a reason to be interested in finding ways to reduce dependence on REEs from China.
The high demand for the REEs supplied by China provides them with an opportunity to drive the prices up to the rest of the world. China is mindful of their own needs for REEs in order to continue to be a leading producer of electronics. Therefore, retaining strong control over the global supply of REEs is dually profitable to China’s economy. China claims they are concerned they are diminishing their own supply of REEs and have been reducing availability to the global economy. With the projected decreased supply, a shortage is projected, which creates concern for the rest of the world. Without a supply of REEs outside of China, prices for REEs will continue to increase; causing prices for electronics to increase, and therefore, the electronics we wish to buy will cost us more.
If the global economy can increase their sources outside of China it can increase independence from China. Two main ways to obtain REEs without China is to find new sources to mine these elements or recycle the REEs we already have. Much effort is being placed on finding new locations for mining REEs but the effort placed on recycling REEs could arguable be increased. Removing REEs in electronics no longer in use and recycling them for future use in electronics may be the best option for global independence. For example, if we repurpose the REEs that already exist in The United States locally, we can create our own stock of REEs. Building a system of using and reusing REEs within an economy provides an opportunity to control our own price for our supply for our own demand. Recycling REEs is an additional step that would require action from individuals, companies, and communities. This action may be seen as a risk by some who worry they will compromise any personal information stored on electronics deemed for recycling. Some might consider recycling as too much for them to act, seeing their voluntary action of recycling costing them too much time or effort. Ultimately recycling REEs eliminates the process of mining for REEs and the need to buy them from those who produce them, a benefit which may outweigh the cost of recycling.