Your Smartphone's Dirty, Dangerous SecretSubmitted by Katherine on Mon, 11/26/2012 - 10:29
I HAVE COME TO MALAYSIA because of my iPhone. I already knew that behind its sleek casing lurked a problematic history. I'd read the stories about Apple's Chinese factories—about teenage girls working 15-hour shifts cleaning screens with toxic solvents, about suicides among exhausted workers whose lives are no longer their own. But I had a much dimmer idea of my phone's history before the Foxconn plant—where did those components they put together come from? What were its guts made of? My phone's shady past, it turned out, began long before it was assembled in a Chinese factory. The elements used to power all our high-tech gadgets come from a very dirty industry in which rich nations extract the good stuff from the earth—and leave poor countries to clean up the mess.
"Never again" is a common refrain among Bukit Merah residents who have lived through 20 years of Asian Rare Earth aftermath. But the Malaysian government doesn't agree. In 2008, it approved an Australian company's plan to build a brand new rare-earth refinery on the country's east coast. The company, Lynas Corporation, will do its mining in Australia, but it will refine the rare earths—a process that generates vast quantities of toxic and radioactive waste—in Kuantan, Malaysia, a sleepy coastal city in a state where the average resident makes $7,314 a year. When completed, the plant will be the largest of its kind, meeting a full fifth of the world's rare-earth demand. Its waste will not be permanently stored in an underground facility. Instead, toxic wastewater will be treated and released into the productive fishing grounds of the South China Sea, home to more than 3,300 species of fish. As for the plans for the radioactive solids? Well, they remind people all too much of what happened in the days of Esso Man.
To the Malaysian government, the Lynas plant represents an opportunity to become a major player in one of the most lucrative, fastest-growing industries in the world. In the 20 years since the Bukit Merah plant closed, demand for rare earths has increased tenfold, from roughly $1 billion to $10 billion today. A recent report predicted it to grow another 36 percent by 2015.
Next Page: Walk down the aisles of your local Best Buy and you'll be hard-pressed to find a phone, laptop, or TV that doesn't contain at least one of the rare earths.