The dark side of rare earth mining

Many components of modern day (consumer) technologies use rare earths like cerium and neodymium. Contrary to what the name suggests, these minerals are just as common as nickel or copper. While China only has 30% of the world’s deposits it produces 90% of the world’s supply. The reason for this is the fact that the extraction process involves  chemicals like sulfuric and nitric acid on an industrial scale producing vast amounts of toxic waste. China apparently does not shy away from the environmental impact. The article below features Baotou, the centre of China’s rare earth mining industry. Baotou has an artifical lake consisting of toxic waste water only.

We reached the shore, and looked across the lake. I’d seen some photos before I left for Inner Mongolia, but nothing prepared me for the sight. It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying. The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realisation that this was the byproduct not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West.


After seeing the impact of rare earth mining myself, it’s impossible to view the gadgets I use everyday in the same way. As I watched Apple announce their smart watch recently, a thought crossed my mind: once we made watches with minerals mined from the Earth and treated them like precious heirlooms; now we use even rarer minerals and we’ll want to update them yearly. Technology companies continually urge us to upgrade; to buy the newest tablet or phone. But I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Bautou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon.


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