Tailings: mining’s toxic legacy

The average laptop weighs about 1.5 kg. Roughly 1 kg of that weight is aluminum, steel and other mined metals. To get that 1 kg, roughly 1,200 kg of earth needs to be blasted, dug and laced with toxic chemicals. What happens to the 1,100 kg of toxic waste? It is dumped in what are called tailing lakes. There is nothing good about tailings. Tailings from copper and uranium mining, for example, are known to produce measurable levels of radioactivity.

Nothing creates more tailings than the making of electronics. The reason is that the materials required in a particular piece of electronics need to be incredibly pure. To achieve that purity, huge quantities of highly toxic waste are produced. In more traditional mining operations, tailing waste can account for between 90% and 99% of activity. When it comes to electronics, it’s typically 99.9% or higher tailing waste.

“Something that does set digital technologies apart in terms of their energy and material footprints from more traditional manufacturing is that to get the purity of the materials you need to make things like semiconductors requires substantially more energy and material inputs in terms of purifying those materials,” scientist Josh Lepawsky explained to me. “One analogy I recall is that if you think about the purity needed for manufacturing a silicon ingot, which is a desk-sized cylinder of metal that is required for making the silicon that goes into semiconductor manufacturing, if you think of Tic Tacs [little sweet mints that are smaller than a finger nail], you would need to line up those Tic Tacs from the west coast of the United States to the east coast and only one Tic Tac in that line could be impure. That’s the level of purity that’s required to make those semiconductors. And to get that type of purity requires massive amounts of energy and resources. So, there are heavy consequences for manufacturing these devices.”

In the year 1970, we mined about 30 billion tons of material from the Earth, most of it ending as tailings sludge. In the year 2020, we mined 100 billion tons. (Yes, in one year—in the year 2020.) “A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant,” the IEA states. Our digital tech revolution that took off in the 1970s has contributed to an explosion in mining. Our ‘green’ tech revolution is going to exponentially accelerate this wanton destruction of the planet we live on. By 2050, we will be extracting 170 billion tons of material every year to build electric vehicles, solar panels, wind farms and the very latest, coolest iPhone 635X. Mount Everest has a mass of 150 billion tons. So, by 2050 the human ‘green’ revolution will be extracting more than a Mount Everest every single year, turning the Earth into a grey and toxic mega-tailings sea, devasting wildlife, devasting all life. That’s us. Human. Highly intelligent. Unwise.

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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