There’s a lake hidden in a corner of Inner Mongolia that few people have ever seen in person.
That’s because this is no ordinary lake — it’s a horrifying window into the dark side of the tech industry.
Reporter Tim Maughan travelled there with the Unknown Fields Division as part of a 3-week journey tracing the route that Chinese consumer goods take backwards from the stores where we pick them up to the raw resources that go into manufacturing them.
And what they found at the end of the route is disturbing: a gigantic lake full of radioactive, sulphur-smelling, toxic sludge.
“It feels like hell on Earth,” Maughan wrote for BBC.
The tech boom
It’s no coincidence that this lake exists in China. The country is home to the world’s largest reserves of “rare Earth elements” (REE’s) — one of the secrets behind it’s explosive economic growth over the past few decades. The lake sits on the outer ring of the city of Baotou. Back in 1950 Baotou had under 100,000 people. The spike in worldwide demand for consumer tech goods has made people flock to the city. Now it has over 2.5 million.
Most of us are blissfully unaware of how dependent we are on REE’s, but they have a nearly ubiquitous presence in consumer tech goods. Everything from the insides of cell phones to electric car motors are made of them. For example, the REE called cerium coats smartphone screens and neodymium is used in the magnets that go inside earphones and computer hard drives.
Despite their name, these minerals aren’t so rare — you could probably find a few in your backyard right now. However, there are only a few places in the world that have a high enough concentration of REE’s to make it worth mining for them.
Even where these minerals are abundant, mining them isn’t easy, and it’s incredibly destructive. The ground is dug up and the earth is flooded with chemicals to pull out the valuable parts. And all that waste has to go somewhere.
Hell on Earth
In 2009, over 90% of the world’s REE’s came from Baotou. However, China doesn’t have the most of every single type of REE, Maughan pointed out. The country produces about 90% of the global economy’s neodymium, but it has only about 30% of the world’s reserves. So to some degree, China may be profiting the most from REE’s simply because it’s willing to pay the heavy environmental price that comes from mining them.
And business is booming. The Industrial Minerals Company of Australia estimates that China will produce about 130,000 tonnes of REE’s by 2016.
But for every ton of REE’s mined, somewhere 340,000 to 420,000 cubic feet of waste gas made of dust, hydrofluoric acid, sulphur dioxide, and sulfuric acid is released. You also get about 2,600 cubic feet of acidic wastewater and 1 ton of radioactive waste, according to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths
The result is a constant stream of toxic sludge that feeds into a giant wasteland about 75 miles outside Batou:
You can get a sense of how huge the lake is from Google Maps:
Quantifying the environmental impact that this hell hole is having proved pretty much impossible for Maughan. Ironically a lot of the material mined here goes toward creating “green” tech like electric car motors and wind turbines, but REE factory workers clammed up every time Maughan asked about the environmental impact of the mining process itself. There doesn’t seem to be any accessible research or data that tells us how all this waste is affecting the area either.
It’s easy to villainize certain industry sectors (like petroleum, for example) for destroying the environment. But what happens when one of the worst-offending industries is the producer of something we can’t live without? It’s harder to condemn the tech industry because we desperately want the latest smartphone model or the next-fastest computer.
Demand for tech is only going to increase, and it’s clear that we need a better strategy than simply dumping all the toxic byproducts in a lake of sludge.
Hopefully with all this tech we can come up with a more sophisticated solution.