What you should know about the cobalt in your smartphone

smartphone
CC BY 2.0 Karlis Dambrans

Cobalt is used to build lithium-ion batteries found in mobile technology. Much of it comes from Congo, where men, women, and children endure dangerous and unhealthy conditions to satisfy our hunger for new devices. It's time we paid attention.

You are probably reading this article on a tablet, smartphone, or laptop computer. If so, your device could very well contain cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, an impoverished yet mineral-rich nation in central Africa, that provides 60 percent of the world’s cobalt. (The remaining 40 percent is sourced in smaller amounts from a number of other nations, including China, Canada, Russia, Australia and the Philippines.)

Cobalt is used to build rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, an integral part of the mobile technology that has become commonplace in recent years. Tech giants such as Apple and Samsung, as well as automakers like Tesla, GM, and BMW, which are starting to produce electric cars on a mass scale, have an insatiable appetite for cobalt. But unfortunately, this appetite comes at a high cost, both for humans and for the environment.

An excellent investigative piece by the Washington Post called “The cobalt pipeline: From dangerous tunnels in Congo to consumers’ mobile tech” explores the source of this valuable mineral that everyone relies on, yet knows little about.

“Lithium-ion batteries were supposed to be different from the dirty, toxic technologies of the past. Lighter and packing more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries, these cobalt-rich batteries are seen as ‘green.’ They are essential to plans for one day moving beyond smog-belching gasoline engines. Already these batteries have defined the world’s tech devices.

“Smartphones would not fit in pockets without them. Laptops would not fit on laps. Electric vehicles would be impractical. In many ways, the current Silicon Valley gold rush — from mobile devices to driverless cars — is built on the power of lithium-ion batteries.”

What The Post found is an industry that’s heavily reliant on ‘artisanal miners’ or creuseurs, as they’re called in French. These men do not work for industrial mining firms, but rather dig independently, anywhere they may find minerals, under roads and railways, in backyards, sometimes under their own homes. It is dangerous work that often results in injury, collapsed tunnels, and fires. The miners earn between $2 and $3 per day by selling their haul at a local minerals market.

mining in CongoFairphone (Facebook)/via

All of the cobalt goes directly to a single Chinese-owned company, Congo DongFang Mining, which ships the mineral to China, refines it, and sells it to large battery cathode makers. These, in turn, sell cathodes to battery makers that supply major tech companies.

At the same time, in cobalt-producing regions of Congo, child laborers are being employed, women are spending their days washing minerals, and babies are being born with shocking, rarely-seen birth defects.

In 2010, the United States passed a law requiring American companies to source four specific minerals — tin, copper, tungsten, and gold — from Congolese mines that are free from militia control. While this is seen as an attempt to prevent human rights abuses, cobalt has never been added to the list. Analyst Simon Moores thinks this is because “any crimp in the cobalt supply chain would devastate companies.” Essentially it’s too valuable a mineral on which to place any limitations:

“While cobalt mining is not thought to be funding wars, many activists and some industry analysts say cobalt miners could benefit from the law’s protection from exploitation and human rights abuses. The law forces companies to attempt to trace their supply chains and opens up the entire route to inspection by independent auditors.”

Companies don’t want to follow through with promises of improved transparency or ethical sourcing because it comes at a higher cost. Cobalt sourced from artisanal miners is far cheaper than that produced by industrial mines. “Companies do not have to pay miners’ salaries or fund the operations of a large-scale mine. With cheap cobalt flooding the market, some international traders canceled contracts for industrial ores, opting to scoop up artisanal ones.”

Manufacturers don’t have satisfactory answers. Tesla has yet to send someone to Congo, after promising months ago to “send one of our guys there.” Amazon, whose Kindles use Congolese cobalt, declined to comment. LG Chem, a battery supplier to GM and Ford, says its cobalt comes from New Caledonia, despite the suspicious fact that LG Chem “consumes more cobalt than the entire nation of New Caledonia produces, according to analysts and publicly available data.”

Apple says it supports the addition of cobalt to the 2010 anti-conflict minerals law and has promised to treat cobalt as if it were a conflict mineral, requiring all refiners to provide outside supply-chain audits and conduct risk assessments, starting next year.

Lara Smith works for a Johannesburg consultant group that helps mining companies clarify their supply chain. She points out that companies claiming ignorance is ridiculous: “Because if they wanted to understand, they could understand. They don’t.”

The other question to be asking is what our responsibility is, as consumers of the products that drive demand for cobalt. Does an upgrade to the newest Apple product seem less appealing, knowing the human cost involved?

Many analysts do believe these risks can be managed, and perhaps they can; but it will require a complete overhaul of a system that is already deeply entrenched, and that’s a very hard thing to do. In the meantime, while I continue using my old iPhone 4s until it dies, I’ve got my fingers crossed that the Fairphone, made with fair trade-certified minerals, will soon be available in North America.

Tags: Africa | Apple Inc | Cell Phones | Mining | Technology

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