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Earth Technology

The Dystopian Lake Filled By the World's Tech Sludge 215

New submitter trevc sends this story from the BBC: Hidden in an unknown corner of Inner Mongolia is a toxic, nightmarish lake created by our thirst for smartphones, consumer gadgets and green tech. The city-sized Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys reaching up into grey, washed-out sky. Stretching into the distance, lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge. ... You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs.
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The Dystopian Lake Filled By the World's Tech Sludge

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  • by zlives ( 2009072 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:17PM (#49398763)

    who cares what happens on Giedi Prime as long as the spice flows.

  • by Camel Pilot ( 78781 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:18PM (#49398775) Homepage Journal

    Sounds like an objectivist utopia

    • by jythie ( 914043 )
      Nah, they would still find ways to blame others for not being as rich as they think they should be. Maybe if they just deregulate a little more....
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by aaron4801 ( 3007881 )
      Do you realize that the company is a state-owned entity in a communist country? It's pretty much the exact opposite of an objectivist situation.
      • Nope. They will never understand that. They also don't understand that it was the ignoring of private property (and damage to it via pollution) by government that led to the environmental destruction of the industrial revolution. If private property rights were enforced you couldn't dump your sludge or have it's runoff go onto someones property without compensating for the damage.Pollution was allowed because it was for the common good. Now where have we heard that before?

      • In any case, both utopias are fully capable of hosting companies that dump toxic sludge into lakes and silencing dissent. When a society gives into absolutes, pragmatism is anathema. Eco-Activism can be both Anti-Revolutionary and Socialist, depending on the observer's fringe point of view.
    • It sounds like a standard mine tailings dam to me. You can see it on Google maps? So what? You can see much smaller tailings dams all over the world on Google maps. Yeah, they're disgusting, but we'd need to completely stop using metal to get rid of them.

      The important thing is not that it's a tailings dam, but how it's constructed and managed - and there's no hint of that. A properly constructed and managed tailings dam shouldn't be a major environmental issue, but a poorly constructed or managed one is a d

      • Coincidentally, a Facebook friend posted this video of the place: Baotou toxic lake [youtu.be].

        As i suspected, it's a standard - although huge - tailings dam. Anywhere there's a metalliferous mine, you'll find one (or more) of these. I've only worked in one mine (in Australia) and their tailings dam had been incompetently built and managed - and it leaks into the surrounding soil and water table. I suspect they're like that everywhere, as mining companies only care about money, not the environment, and governments tur

  • by chihowa ( 366380 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:22PM (#49398799)

    You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking.

    We're able to produce most of what we use, including rare earth minerals, without creating toxic sludge lakes. The only reason we send all of these industries to China is to because their lax environmental and labor laws allow cheaper production, and thus higher profit margins.

    Our modern lives don't depend on utterly fucking up our environment, but ridiculous executive pay and concentration of wealth at the top benefit greatly from it. Studies (which I'm too lazy to look up, but I'm sure others can find easily) show that it doesn't cost that much more to make goods in the US and Europe, labor and environmental regulations and all. The outsourcing of manufacturing hasn't even significantly dropped retail prices much, though profit margins (and net profits) are at record highs across most industries.

    • by Coren22 ( 1625475 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:27PM (#49398835) Journal

      The Moto X was built in the US, I recall reading somewhere that it cost around $2 more to assemble in the US. I would assume however that the parts were not manufactured in the US, but I could be wrong.

    • by bhcompy ( 1877290 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:44PM (#49398951)
      Rare earth minerals actually aren't rare and we have tons of proven reserves. We just stopped because it's a dirty business [theatlantic.com].
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:57PM (#49399023)

      Posting AC, as I'm too lazy to log in.

      A few years ago, I was looking to build a project. I found out there were two tiers:

      Built it up to high standards: The US, Russia, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the UK, China, Canada, and many other countries could build what I needed to a top spec.

      Build it cheap: China could undercut everyone, and could offer bargain basement specs turned into bargain basement products with canned ass for quality.

      What I ended up doing, after looking for manufacturing the world over is finding a place that could do what I wanted... all within 50 miles (~80 km) of where I lived. Since prices were almost identical across the board, I just went with local factories to crank the thing out for sale.

      tl;dr, if you want it cheap, China is your go to guy. If you want it done right, the entire world can do it.

      The only exception to this was a type of mechanical security piece which had to be milled in Switzerland due to the insanely high tolerances required. I later replaced the proprietary key assembly with an Abloy PROTEC2 cam lock and key switch [1].

      [1]: Security is something to be taken seriously. Yes, someone can wrench their way in by force, but it leaves an obvious signature... if a lock gets picked, there is little to no proof of intrusion, so I use top tier locks to do the job right. In the late 1980s, and early 1990s, many data center appliances used Medeco or other high security brands. Now, if I see a lock on something, it likely is a CH751 lock or something just as shitty.

    • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @02:07PM (#49399075)

      We're able to produce most of what we use, including rare earth minerals, without creating toxic sludge lakes. The only reason we send all of these industries to China is to because their lax environmental and labor laws allow cheaper production, and thus higher profit margins.

      Not correct, or at least not completely true. The primary reason China has captured a lot of manufacturing business is because they have a large supply of cheap labor. And most of the reason it is cheap is precisely because the supply is so large - economics 101 stuff. Lots of laborers competing for jobs keeps wages suppressed. You are correct however that lax environmental policies do play a role in some industries as well. Stuff like glass, steel, etc can be pretty rough on the environment and not having to pay for these externalities can be a competitive advantage. China doesn't have a bad pollution problem just by coincidence. That is the result of decades of sacrificing the environment to boost wages and build industry. (It also has a lot to do with the number of dirty coal fired power plants they use)

      Studies (which I'm too lazy to look up, but I'm sure others can find easily) show that it doesn't cost that much more to make goods in the US and Europe, labor and environmental regulations and all.

      Depends strongly on what exactly you are producing. I run a manufacturing company. Whether something costs more to make in China versus the US depends primarily on the labor content of what is being produced. Labor intensive goods tend to get produced in low labor cost countries. Capital intensive goods tend to get produced in capital efficient (usually high labor cost) countries. It's obviously not quite that simple but it's a good first approximation. Stuff that can be automated or which has a lot of IP content tends to stay domestic. Stuff that requires the lowest possible labor costs tends to migrate elsewhere.

      The outsourcing of manufacturing hasn't even significantly dropped retail prices much, though profit margins (and net profits) are at record highs across most industries.

      Hasn't dropped retail prices much? A quick trip through Walmart should disabuse you of that notion. I've quoted jobs for stuff that is sold through Walmart. The target prices sometimes were below our cost of materials. Much of that cost savings is being passed on precisely because that is Walmart's business model - to be a price leader you have to pass on savings to customers or someone else will. If you think manufacturers are keeping all those profits from offshoring then you are very, very mistaken.

      Profit margins are sometimes higher on domestically manufactured goods because of selection bias. The companies that are left are generally those which are not in labor intensive industries where offshoring makes sense due to intense price competition. The ones that are left are those that can for one reason or another protect their margins. Sometimes through IP, sometimes through capital efficiency, sometimes through automation, sometimes due to customer requirements, sometimes due to regulations. The US manufacturing sector is roughly the same size as China's when measured in dollars so plenty of stuff gets made here. Just not your McDonalds happy meal toys.

      • by jythie ( 914043 )
        Adjusted for inflation and looking at products which have been manufactured for decades, Walmart prices are actually not that good, often coming out higher then their earlier counterparts.
      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        Retail prices drop, but retail value falls as well. Which is better, a $500 mower that'll last ten years or ten $100 mowers that'll last a year each? The latter is often what you get at Walmart.

        Of course that doesn't matter much for Happy Meal toys, but lead content might. Interestingly, those cheap plastic toys aren't all that labor intensive...

        The companies that offshore are sharing SOME of the savings, but they seem to be keeping a fair bit for themselves as well.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking.

      The only reason we send all of these industries to China is to because their lax environmental and labor laws allow cheaper production, and thus higher profit margins.

      In the global economy China competes by having "lax environmental and labor laws" to attract "these industries." The fault, if we are to assign fault and blame, lies with a political system in China that is not yet robust enough to protect the environment. The same conditions would exist and did exist in the United States until the political economy forced change. Look into the Copper Hills of Tennessee then and now. For a few years in the late '60s and early '70s I lived on Missionary Ridge in Chattano

      • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 )

        Western countries have been busy writing treaties that prohibit import tariffs for goods that had environmentally damaging production/farming/fishing methods.

        Don't like tuna fishing killing dolphins? tough, you can't import tax bad tuna.

        The west deliberately allow China's poor pollution controls. Why?

    • Studies (which I'm too lazy to look up, but I'm sure others can find easily) show that it doesn't cost that much more to make goods in the US and Europe, labor and environmental regulations and all

      Actually a Slashdot article from last year says that's not true, it was more expensive in the US.

      http://hardware.slashdot.org/s... [slashdot.org]

      Now there's always more to the story. I'm sure the Google closed factory has lots of other reasons, and this being Slashdot I'm sure many people will point out to me how I'm completely wrong. And maybe I am. But my point is, someone tried it and came to the conclusion that it costs that much more to make goods in the US that its not worth it.

    • Studies (which I'm too lazy to look up, but I'm sure others can find easily) show that it doesn't cost that much more to make goods in the US and Europe, labor and environmental regulations and all.

      That's kind of a joke. When Apple had its manufacturing in the US, everyone complained that Macintoshes were more expensive.

      It's fun to blame rich executives and corporations, but the reality is people at every income level are happy to get things for a dollar less.

    • What you say is true, but when I look up the list of counties by imports [wikipedia.org] I see that the #1 and #2 spots are occupied by USA and EU. USA and EU don't import ivory, rhinoceros horn, etc because we think that the money spent to buy these products causes harm. Maybe it's time we look at places like Baotou and at the working conditions that bring about the famous Foxconn suicide rate and decide that our money might oughtn't to be enabling that.
    • by al0ha ( 1262684 )
      Moly Corp (MCP) returned to mining these minerals in California via a more environmentally friendly method, but of course everyone has to have everything as cheap as possible, so China artificially deflates prices so that Moly Corp has difficultly being profitable now; just like the Saudis do with the oil market, China does with rare earth minerals. Warriors of the almighty dollar live and die by the sword.
    • It's not so much the cost of making the product; as others have shown below, that's really a push. A few dollars one way or another on a $300 COGM product. The BIG difference is taxation. Sell that phone for $700 - that's $400 of profit. China's tax rate is about 60% of the US [kpmg.com] - meaning on that $400 profit, in the US you'll pay around $160 in taxes. In China, you'll pay around $100. That's a $60 difference - that's the big money.

      Companies don't just look overseas because of lower labor costs (or lower

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:23PM (#49398803)

    Move along! Move along! Could I interest you in yet another incremental improvement in technology?

    • by itzly ( 3699663 )

      This problem isn't for the consumer to fix. The fix should come from the people who suffer from the pollution. Otherwise, you're just pushing on a rope.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:24PM (#49398813)

    The author makes a good point: we shouldn't be treating gadgets as disposable.

    Where the article fails is the implication (intentional or not) that "green" tech is creating some new problem that didn't exist before. Every hard rock mining operation no matter the purpose (INCLUDING some mining operations that extract oil from tar sands) produces toxic chemical laced by-products that must be dealt with (frequently by putting them in tailings ponds).

    • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @02:02PM (#49399049)

      We've treated them as disposable in recent years because technology was advancing too rapidly to bother about building them to last. There's no point making a phone that can be repaired and maintaned for twenty years when next year's model will have twice the memory and three times the processing power, and a radio that moves bits twice as fast too. There may come a time when that will change.

      • $300 and $400 dollar items "disposable"? Really? I get anxious when I have to spend more than a few hundred, and expect it to last.

        It is easy enough to design something with upgradeability in mind, not to mention having 3 times the processing power or memory really doesn't increase the usability of a phone. You're not doing ray tracing on it.

        I'd lean more on planned obsolescence and basic consumerism. I can't see where gadgets have really improved quality of life that much, but it is certainly easier to sel

        • by itzly ( 3699663 )

          $300 and $400 dollar items "disposable"? Really? I get anxious when I have to spend more than a few hundred, and expect it to last.

          What good is a status symbol that everybody can afford ?

          • It's not a question of afford as much as a question of value. I mean I can even see the case made for uber expensive watches, but those will actually stick around for a few lifetimes, and will probably increase in value.

            If electric cars were sold with non-replaceable batteries, and had to be junked as the only way to improve performance, people would laugh at the folly. Yet for consumer electronics, we accept this as the norm, and even ritualized the process There is a huge disconnect here.

            • If I spent $700 on an electric car, I'd be much more comfortable replacing it after 2 years (especially if it's more the case that I spent $100 on the car, along with a 2 year contract that provided me with electricity for said car) when a newer model was out.
        • For most people in the US, it's not a $300-$400 phone, it's a free-to-$49 phone. Yes, you have to sign a contract for a few years of service - but you need service anyway to use the phone.
      • There's no point making a phone that can be repaired and maintaned for twenty years when next year's model will have twice the memory and three times the processing power, and a radio that moves bits twice as fast too.

        We could have said the same about desktop PCs back in the day, but we didn't.

        • I don't get your point. How many computers have been repaired and maintained for twenty years? There's some out there (I think I could still fire up the old TRS-80 4P), but most are fairly recent. Moreover, the big explosions in hardware price and capability are over ten years old now. A 2005 computer would be a lot closer to a 2015 computer in power than to a 1995 one.

    • by LessThanObvious ( 3671949 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @02:09PM (#49399081)

      Valuing device longevity rather than having all devices being disposable after 2-3 years seems like low hanging fruit from an environmental perspective that gets very little attention. Especially now that things like Blueray players and other devices are getting embedded apps like Netflix and a variety of other applications, it is getting harder to have devices with reasonable lifespans. The manufacturers in general are driven to produce products with the lowest possible price right now, and have little incentive to build in longevity. Devices containing internet connected software applications make this worse because manufacturers don't want to develop and support updates for something sold five years ago. My experience too often is that manufactures force firmware updates and eventually one of the updates breaks the functionality of the device. There is no incentive to maintain a stable code base that can exist indefinitely without intervention. How many appliances purchased in decades past lasted for twenty years or better? How many of the things we buy today will be in use 7 years from now? I think we are in a period of rapid innovation where stable higher longevity products are not going to be the norm, but I really hope in a few years we can adapt to a more sustainable model where the things we buy can have a longer expected service life. Rapid innovation and extreme devaluing of commodity items comes at cost, despite the benefits to the consumer.

      • Valuing device longevity rather than having all devices being disposable after 2-3 years seems like low hanging fruit from an environmental perspective that gets very little attention.

        Valuing device longevity seem like abject stupidity when you're talking about a device that is obsolete within a few years of introduction.

        Yeah, we could build computers and such that lasted twenty years. So, anyone still using a computer made in the mid-90s? Yeah, 200 MHz & 200 MB RAM machines were pretty awesome back

    • The author makes a good point: we shouldn't be treating gadgets as disposable.

      Easy for me to stop (everything that's EOL in my house is re-purposed or broken down to usable components; including smart devices). Easy for me to convince *some* of my friends to stop. Other friends have the IDGAF attitude about it. Try to convince people I don't even know and in most cases it's deaf ears (those ears that aren't deaf were usually already on the way to being their own "pebble" anyway without my nudge). Everyone goes on about "pebble in a pond" methods of effecting world change. What t

  • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:30PM (#49398851) Journal

    We outsourced our jobs and our pollution.

  • Check the data! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    According to Google Maps, Baotou, Inner Mongolia, has one fairly small sludge pond from which carefully posed hysterical pictures are taken for the referenced article, while the remainder of the city appears quite nice. So once again we find that we have here just another over-hyped fictional story from the evil media.

    • Christ...I've seen Coal Ash Lakes for power plants bigger than that in the US.
    • I had much the same thought about the size of the toxic lake. That said the city doesn't really look like it'd support the quoted 2.7 million workers either. I wonder if google is displaying older images or something.

    • A roughly 1.8 x 1.8 mile catchment, with about half a square mile of "water" - is that really small for a sludge pond? And the rest of the city "appears quite nice"...where exactly are you from?
  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @01:56PM (#49399019)

    If we (and by 'we' I mean places like California) were really concerned with the global environment, we'd open our own rare earth mines and processing facilities. So the EPA could keep a closer eye on them and they could be run under tighter regulations. Or at a minimum, pass one of those state laws prohibiting technologies based on polluting industries. So let's see them give up iPads, Teslas, wind and solar power and all those other 'filthy' products.

  • ...That was not in the ore taken out of the ground in the first place?

    • If it was just left-over ore that happens to be not-rare-earth-minerals, that would be one thing.

      However, this is all the nasty chemical shit they use to separate the not-rare-earth-minerals from the rare earth minerals without neutralizing the nasty caustic shit. Much like what is in Hanford, WA isn't just radioactive not-plutonium, but all of the caustic acids and shit used to separate plutonium from not-plutonium.

  • I've never heard of Dystopium before and there is a lake full of it?

  • The lake wasn't filled by our demand for gadgets, it was filled by Baotou, and the Chinese government allowed them to do it.
  • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Friday April 03, 2015 @02:28PM (#49399205)

    artificial lake

    As in, this is exactly what the lake exists for. A reservoir of sorts for slurry and other runoff from industrial processes is common the WORLD OVER.

    • This guy would probably be shocked to learn that the electricity that he used to type up his article on Chinese sludge lakes created a bit of an American sludge lake that is right next to a coal power plant.

      THE OUTRAGE!!

  • Since the rare earth processing plants are there, and since they dump into the lake, the question is, is that where they put the thorium?

    Rare earths (not rare at all) always come complete with thorium. The problem with producing rare earths in the USA isn't the rareness, it's the waste disposal of the thorium residues. Nobody in the US will buy or store thorium. Thus it must be branded as a waste product, and disposing of a radioactive waste product is insanely expensive if it is possible at all.

    So is th

    • At the end of the article they mention that the radiation level of the lake is 3x background radiation.. which in the grand scheme of things isn't that much.

      • Average world annual background radiation dose is 3 mSv [wikipedia.org] while the same source has the average in the US at 6 mSv, largely from medical scans. So 3x the background radiation is equal to living in the US and getting a head CT scan.

        The horrors.

    • by itzly ( 3699663 )

      The problem with producing rare earths in the USA isn't the rareness, it's the waste disposal of the thorium residues

      Mix it with the rock waste, and dump it back where it came from.

    • throwing away thorium makes about as much sense as throwing out crude oil once you've skimmed the kerosene and paraffin off the top. =(

  • Damn, I've had it with my iPad, the battery just wont hold a charge any more. I guess it's time to buy a new one. I love how Apple gives me a reason to upgrade by not making the battery replaceable. Thanks Apple - you're the best! I know many of you will comment about how Nexus devices, Samsung, and others do not have replaceable batteries either. But, Apple was the one to innovate here first!

    • I don't get why batteries that are not readily removable Are branded as "non-replaceable" All it takes if a little work and the proper tools and these batteries can be replaced at home, by the consumer. The same thing could be said of automobile batteries.
    • Now only if there were service offerings where you could have someone replace the battery on your iPad [batteriesplus.com]. Some of which can do it while you wait for 5 - 10 minutes.

      If only.

      But that still won't stop people from bitching I suppose.

  • The article this post links too is a bit misleading. Read it, was horrified by it, decided to go and look around on Google Maps myself. The city of Baotou does not have pipes all over the streets as the article stated. The streets are wide, paved, full of cars. The city looks pretty decent actually. If you could remove the massive polluting factories on the Western edge of the city, it would probably be pretty nice actually. It is only when you cross the canal into the industrial complex itself that the pi
  • It killed Tasha Yar.

    Also is it just me, or are there a suspicious number of ACs chiming in about how there is only a really tiny sludge lake and Baotou is in fact wonderful? Because I looked on Google maps, there was pretty big sludge lake and the place looks pretty dismal.

    • It killed Tasha Yar.

      Also is it just me, or are there a suspicious number of ACs chiming in about how there is only a really tiny sludge lake and Baotou is in fact wonderful? Because I looked on Google maps, there was pretty big sludge lake and the place looks pretty dismal.

      Did you zoom in?

      I agree that from a high level view it looks pretty barren, but if you zoom out quite a ways you will see that it seems to be an area of China that is quite arid, so you won't see a lot of greenery. They have modern buildings, streets, athletic fields, etc. Zoom in and you can see this.

      If you want a comparison, take a look at Phoenix Arizona on the map. It looks pretty barren and ugly too on satellite. One difference is that most home owners in Phoenix landscape around their houses so wh

  • by pubwvj ( 1045960 ) on Friday April 03, 2015 @05:09PM (#49400457)

    In the future they will mine this like for the vast resources it contains. Just like landfills. Trash to treasures.

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