Toxic lake, environmental legacy of world’s smart phones and gadgets

By Efrosini Costa

Toxic lake, environmental legacy of world’s smart phones and gadgets
It's hard to stomach, but we are creating this toxic lake with every new piece of technology we demand.

We think a lot about what our tech gadgets can do, but not as much time pondering how or where they are made, and the toxic mess this leaves behind.

But what we found out will startle you and you wont be able to look down at your smartphone, tablet or watch the same way again.

Various media reports have surfaced this week about the city of Baotou in the Chinese province of Mongolia, more specifically about the toxic sludge-like lake that has formed here thanks to the non-stop demand for tech gadgets.


Baotou is one of the world’s largest providers or rare earth minerals that can be found in almost every piece of cutting-edge technology we use in our day to day lives. In fact China produces more than 90 per cent of these minerals.

But the process needed to extract and process these rare minerals leaves a large amount of highly-toxic waste that is simply washed out into the lake via pipes in the factories.

The lake is so large that is is visible via satellite images, measures close to 6 miles in diameter. Sadly a lack of environmental protection laws coupled with the high demand by the world’s tech gadgets users, means this environmental disaster is continuing unnoticed.


“The artificial lake is a creation of the waste byproducts of rare earth mining, which retrieves essential minerals needed to create a lot of our tech gadgets,” British writer Tim Maughan, who recently visited and wrote about the lake, said.

“Our lust for things like smartphones, flat-screen televisions and ironically, even ‘green technology,’ is what’s created this lake,” Maughan said. “It’s just really disturbing.”

Maughan was invited to visit the lake on a media visit to the area with a group of architects and designers known as the Unkown Fields Divisions.

“We were travelling backwards through spots on the global supply chain for consumer goods made in China transported to our homes in the Western world,” Maughan said. “The Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex was our last stop.”


According to him, the industrial city reeked of sulfur. The group had to wear paper masks during the trip, he said, adding the entire city felt like a grimy, alien, dystopian world.

“We drove along a dirt road which wasn’t guarded, climbed a huge black mound about three to four stories high and got to the shore of the lake. There were hundreds of these black pipes through which sludge was coming from.”

“All one could see on the toxic lake’s horizon were refineries and towers of factory buildings,” Maughan said. He added that many of the factories in the area processed minerals like the ones needed to make microphones, earbuds and make our smartphone and tablet screens shiny.

“And the weird irony was that a lot of this byproduct waste was also the result of processes used to create so-called ‘green technology’ like wind turbines and electric motors in electric cars,” Maughan said.


The writer added that the trip has left him feeling conflicted about the constant technology being “thrown at us”.

“I’m as guilty as anyone lusting after this stuff,” he said.

“Short-term, I think some ways to stop the demand for this is just not upgrading as frequently as we do. There’s really no reason any of these devices shouldn’t last us at least five years if not more, so we don’t have to upgrade every year.”

Long-term, Maughan beleives we need to find a better way of producing these materials so they’re less harmful to the people who make them and to the environment.

“I just don’t think it’s right we’re outsourcing this production to people who are willing to work 16-hour days at such low pay just so we can get this technology for cheap,” he said.



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