There are seventeen rare earth elements in the periodic table: fifteen lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium. About nine of those elements go into every iPhone sold… and if China were suddenly to disappear from a map tomorrow, Apple would lose about 90% of those elements.
Those nine rare-earth elements are used in all sorts of things to make your iPhone, including providing the LCD display, help polish the glass, build the speakers, make the phone circuitry and even allow your iPhone to vibrate on silent mode. But they are also an environmental nightmare to actually claw out of the earth, which is why China — which doesn’t care much about such issues — has a stranglehold on them.
Indeed, in 2012, Scientific American released a fantastic article about the problems that plague rare earth mining, which is described as a “toxic mess.”
By some accounts, the smog in Baotou can be dense, the air acrid. But the biggest hazard is an artificial “tailings” lake west of the city, where refineries that process the rare-earth minerals dump their waste. A Daily Mail reporter, who sneaked past guards and climbed sand dunes to reach the rim of the lake, described it as “an apocalyptic sight.”
“The lake instantly assaults your senses. Stand on the black crust for just seconds and your eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills your lungs,” the article read.
It’s an interesting problem, and shows yet another way in which Apple is wholly dependent upon China, even outside of manufacturing. Check out this article on Scientific American to know more.