Your Electronics are Threatening Marine Life


Mining companies are looking for the minerals needed to power your cell phone, TV and laptop in the deep sea, but you can take a stand

Endangered sea turtles, sharks, whales, coral, octopuses, marine birds and a slew of other animals now face a new existential threat: your phone, TV, laptop computer and car.

That’s because the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a 1.7-million-square-mile area of ocean between Hawaii and Mexico, could soon be open game for mining corporations searching for minerals like nickel, copper and cobalt, which are used to power many consumer electronics.

Traditionally, these minerals have been mined terrestrially across the globe with dire consequences to biodiversity. In the Congo Basin, mining for cobalt, a key ingredient to producing cell phones, has contributed to the decline of the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla, which has lost 77 percent of its population in the last 20 years.

According to Matthew Gianni, co-founder and political and policy adviser with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, deep-sea mining in this region will “largely obliterate a lot of the organisms, specifically the larger organisms.”

The premise of deep-sea mining is that “tractors” will sweep the ocean bed, blasting nodules, rock-like potato-sized deposits that contain sought after minerals. These nodules make attractive homes for an array of marine creatures like sponges and corals. Many other species, including mega fauna like large fish and sharks, are considered nodule obligate. For instance, manganese nodules are breeding grounds for deep-sea octopuses, which deposit their eggs onto sponges that only grow on these nodules.

The blast itself will cause sediment clouds that will be distributed far past the mining sites themselves. In the process, the ocean will suffer “cascading effects on the food web” including disruption to photosynthesis in marine plants, says Emily Jeffers, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

So how can we, as technology consumers, evade an almost-certain catastrophe for biodiversity in the deep sea?

Transforming a Throwaway Culture 

Currently, many of the products we buy are single use, meaning they end up in the landfill when the product fails or when the consumer no longer wants it.

One way to avoid deep-sea mining is to recycle what we already have in the marketplace. Approximately 20 percent of e-waste is recycled each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. This is well below desirable levels, Gianni says.  “Let’s get that up to 80 or 90 percent and then talk about how much we need,” he suggests.

Jeffers agrees that recycling old materials is imperative. “People should make sure they dispose of their electronics in a responsible way,” she says. “I think that’s something everyone can do. It’s going to ultimately protect the ocean…I hesitate to say recycling is the end-all be-all, but I think the capacity for rare-earth minerals is much higher.”

Consumers can take the initiative to donate their used cell phone and other electronics to companies such as Eco-Cell, which has drop-off locations in zoos across the United States. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has a list of certified electronics recyclers on its website.

Jeffers adds that while she understands a desire for new things, we should also consume less in the first place, which would reduce the need for additional mineral exploration. Decreasing product consumption doesn’t lie solely on consumers however. Planned obsolescence on the production end also plays a role. On that note, Jeffers says companies should focus on making longer-lasting products that aren’t “throwaway” and don’t fall apart after a couple of years.

And while our throwaway culture is largely responsible for deep-sea mining threats, Gianni fears that deep-sea mining itself could exacerbate our throwaway culture. He says that economic research from some of the mining companies has shown that deep-sea mineral exploration could be much cheaper than terrestrial mining. Cheaper mining means a lot of cheaper metals on the market. “Why recycle when we can get them cheap?” Gianni says. “That’s the danger.”

The Industry’s Role

Both Gianni and Jeffers would like to see companies take more initiative in creating “closed loop” or “cradle to grave” production. Jeffers argues that companies should require customers to turn their phones over at the end of their life cycles so that materials can be used in later iterations of the product. Further, Gianni would like to see a commitment from electronics companies to go fully circular in production, using all recycled materials for newly released products.

Jeffers also suggests that mining companies look to a new and less damaging frontier: city dumps across the country, which are filled with eWaste. “If we need the minerals, why aren’t we mining our landfills?”

Some in the green technology sector assert that mining the deep sea will be important to powering the electric vehicles and solar panels that are part of our green future. Gianni describes the election between green energy and the health of our oceans as a “dystopian choice,” adding that technology is changing, making it possible to go green without disturbing the deep sea. Further, he says that if the world needs materials to power the green revolution that companies must explore materials and technologies that won’t cause damage to the environment.

He also emphasizes the need for international government cooperation and investments in responsible materials in order to protect the deep sea.  “Even if something is going to cost a little more to build, our governments need to invest in that.”

Citizens play a vital role in putting pressure on companies and governments, Jeffers and Gianni agree. This may take the form of calling or writing a legislator, Jeffers says. Gianni adds that people should speak out to corporations like HP, BMW and Ford to say they don’t want to see deep-sea metals in their cars, computers and other electronics.

Positive Trends

Although the threat of deep-sea mining looms—the International Seabed Authority has already awarded 16 exploratory permits to state sponsors and contractors— there are a number of positive signs as well.

eWaste recycling may be low, but a number of metals are already recycled at significantly higher rates, Gianni says. According to a 2016 U. S. Geological Survey report, the iron and steel recycling rate is 52 percent, with magnesium at 54 percent and nickel at 46 percent.

Furthermore, some tech companies have already taken it upon themselves to self-regulate. In 2017, Apple announced its commitment to operate with a closed loop supply chain, meaning their products will one day be produced with 100 percent recycled materials.

While it’s still uncertain whether we’ll begin mining the deep seas anytime soon and to what extent, much of the power lies in the hands of ordinary citizens to change consumption habits, recycle old electronics, and demand responsible materials from companies and environmentally friendly policies from governments.

“I hope that people are paying attention,” Jeffers says.

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