"Dystopian" and "horrifying" are just two adjectives Tim Maughan uses to describe for the BBC what he recently witnessed in the remote industrial city of Baotou in Inner Mongolia. Most disturbing was his visit to a man-made lake filled with toxic sludge that makes the surrounding area smell like sulfur, wielding an environmental impact that has turned the place into what Maughan says is "like hell on Earth." The wasteland is the site of one of the world's largest rare-earth-mineral productions, where processing plants churn out cerium oxide, neodymium, and other rare earth elements necessary for everything from consumer electronics (cellphones, tablet touchscreens) to the magnets in "green" products such as wind turbines and electric car motors, per the BBC. The unfortunate byproduct of this venture: the dangerous chemical waste in the lake right outside of the city, Maughan notes.
China claims the lion's share of the world's production of these minerals: LiveScience has reported it produced about 95% of our rare earth elements in 2009. A local pol told the Guardian in 2012 that before the factories were erected in the late '50s, "there were watermelons, aubergines, and tomatoes." But Maughan—who traveled there with a design research group to "[trace] back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes"—now found just abandoned outposts, "huge diesel-belching coal trucks," and the sludge-filled lake. "Nothing prepared me for the sight," he writes. "It's a truly alien environment. … The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realization that this was the byproduct not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West." (If you need happier environmental news, here's one good story.)