Tech products are causing total destruction of the area of Baotou, China
iPhones and other tech products have invaded our lifestyle, to the point that some days we feel we couldn't do without them. However, their cost isn't only the juicy price Apple, Samsung and others cash in, it's also a social and environmental cost. We knew that these tech products were assembled in terrible working conditions, for instance in Foxconn's Plant in Shenzhen. But as we go up the supply chain we can see that the production of raw materials is also a huge human and ecological disaster for China. Baotou, in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, is where the rare-earth used for tech products is mined and processed. And it's like hell on earth.
A city that symbolizes China's reckless industrialization
Baotou isn't as well know as major cities like Shenzhen, but it is no less a major symbol of China's rushed and careless industrialization. Located in the northern province of Inner Mongolia, Baotou used to be an anonymous provincial city of around 100,000 people. This started changing in 1958, when the Baotou Iron and Steel company began to produce rare-earth. The change became dramatic in the 1980's, as China forgot the communist ideals and dove into the globalized market. The rare-earth production grew bigger and bigger. And today Baotou is truly the rare-earth capital of the world.
The minerals are mined around 80 miles north of Baotou, and brought back to be processed in the city. China controls 97 % of the total world production of these minerals, and 2/3 of the Chinese production comes from Baotou. This has turned Baotou into a metropolis of 2.5 million inhabitants. Who was behind this metamorphosis ? The central government of course, but also the local government officials and the heads of state-owned companies like Baotou Iron and Steel company. Today's China might be a dictatorship, but what gets done is mostly due to the zeal of local figureheads. For better or for worse. In this case worse is a dramatic understatement.
A production that has wrecked the environment
The cost of our iPhones and Apple's profits has been the horrible pollution of the environment of Baotou. This comes from the methods used to process rare-earth minerals like cerium or neodymium. The ores in which the minerals are found are crushed and then dissolved in acid baths in order to separate the valuable minerals from the waste. But this produces vast amounts of toxic byproducts. At this point we can start glimpsing why China is the main producer of rare-earth minerals. Few countries would be ready to conduct this highly-polluting process on their ground. Anyway, the byproducts are dumped into a “tailings pond” lake a few miles out of the city. Journalist Tim Maughan describes the chill he felt when he saw the lake : “It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying”.
The lake is filled by a thick mixture of water and waste, on its edge a black crust has built up, its so thick one can walk on it. The water is so contaminated with toxic and radioactive waste that no life, neither fish nor algae, lives inside. The city is only marginally better. It's become a hub for rare-earth, crossed every day by armies of diesel-trucks bringing the ore or taking away the processed minerals. The processing plants need tremendous amounts of energy that are generated by inefficient coal-fired power stations. The result is a thick smog and a persistent smell of sulphur. It's the industrial civilization at its worse and it all happened to bolster the careers of a few officials and fatten the purses of tech companies like Apple and Samsung, no matter how high the cost is for the people of Baotou.
And ruined the life of the people of Baotou
The people the most severely hit were the ones that lived close to the lake. Because it wasn't properly lined, it gradually contaminated the nearby land and groundwater, making people sick and killing the possibility of farming. Wang Jianguo, a villager from Xinguang Number One Village, lived close to the lake and can testify that its consequences of the life of the village was catastrophic. Seven of his neighbors have died from cancer, most of the others moved away. His production of cabbage shriveled, his sheep perished. Those who moved out continued to experience hardships.
For example, Lu Yongqing, left when life became impossible : "I couldn't feed my family any longer". But when he moved to Baotou he was forced to accept low-paying jobs because he was still registered as a farmer in the eyes of the government. Indeed, those who fled their villages are seen in the city as illegal immigrants and second-class citizens. But going to the city only lessened the health hazards for the people of the area. The air contamination is actually worse in the city where the pollution from the coal power stations and the solvent vapors from the rare-earth processing mix in a deadly cocktail. Indeed, while corporations buy these minerals for a cheap price, the true cost is paid by the population of Baotou everyday, with every breath of air and every time someone gets sick from the food or the water, or loses his home because life has become unlivable.
Tech companies are accomplices of Baotou's murder
That's why tech companies are accomplices of the environmental and social disaster that is going on in Baotou. This is all the more shocking that many companies like Apple have been trying to convince the public that their products are responsible, as we can see from Apple’s website. However, in this pledge to preserve the environment there isn't a single word about rare-earth ! Granted, Apple has been making some progress, for instance it has banned the use of two extremely dangerous chemicals in the factories working for them. This is better than firms like Samsung and Dell that have reneged on their promises to take out dangerous chemicals from the production process. However, all tech firms are equally guilty when it comes to buying rare-earth. Guilty because they are buying the minerals too cheap, at a price that can't cover the cost of a more responsible production, with a safer processing and a completely different management of waste. This leads to an externalization of the cost to the people of Baotou. This is really cutting corners when you think that Apple is actually congratulating itself for a great 2015 year for their profits : “Fiscal 2015 was Apple’s most successful year ever, with revenue growing 28% to nearly $234 billion”.
With that amount of profit, how can Apple and other tech companies justify buying rare-earth at a price that causes terrible social and ecological consequences ? Another unacceptable tech firm strategy is the sheer volume of production. Tim Maughan cannot help but believe that something is terribly wrong when facing the toxic lake : “As I watched Apple announce their smartwatch 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 Baotou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon.” Indeed, Apple, Samsung and all the tech companies keep trying to sell us more and more tech devices, that are replaced by newer, more innovative ones every year. And each of these devices can only work with rare-earth minerals that are mostly produced in China. This is a recipe for disaster, and unless things change, the lives of the people of Baotou cannot improve.
Indeed Baotou symbolizes many ugly truths about globalization. It's the symbol of a country that rushed into the global market, which made the elite prosperous but dealt lethal blows to the environment and the people. Its also the symbol of the greed and hypocrisy of global corporations like Apple and Samsung. Because no amount of greenwashing will ever wash the grey and the back out of the tailings pond lake of Baotou.