Green Tech’s Underground Workers

Man enters hand-dug tunnel.

Big, rechargeable batteries are key to a green future. They’re required for electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which are a huge part of how the world plans to combat climate change. Norway, the UK, the Netherlands, India, and France have all set timelines for bans on the sales of new cars with fossil-fuel-powered engines. China has also made a commitment to phase out the combustion engine but hasn’t set a date. Home storage cells for saving solar energy generated by day for use at night, like Tesla’s Powerwall, have already mitigated reliance on dirty fossil fuels. But far from sleek electric cars and green homes, barefoot children and vulnerable adults make up the beginning of the green battery supply chain—all because these batteries they help create use a mineral called cobalt, a byproduct of nickel and copper. 

The mining practices used to extract cobalt from the Earth involve child labor and dangerous working conditions. Even if you don’t have a taste for cutting-edge green tech, you’ve probably had your hands on something touched by problematic mining practices: Anything with lithium-ion batteries, including all cell phones, tablets, and laptops, uses cobalt.

Caption for header photo: A man enters a tunnel dug with shovels in a cobalt mine located 22 miles from the town of Likasi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Schalk van Zuydam / Associated Press 

Where Cobalt Comes From

Amnesty International and The World Bank estimate more than half of the world’s cobalt originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC meets more than half of worldwide demand for cobalt through artisanal miners. (The rest comes from industrial mines in China, Australia, Zambia, and Russia.) Artisanal mining sounds quaint, but what it means is that miners don’t have an employer—they dig mines with shovels instead of power diggers and climb through them without safety equipment and without engineers to map out safe 
mining routes. 

An estimated 40 million people earn their living in artisanal mining (not just in cobalt), according to the World Bank. In comparison, industrial mining operations employ only seven million worldwide, meaning that most miners don’t have an employer. 

Children as young as seven sift piles of ore coming out of artisanal mines, looking for pure cobalt. During this process, they may inhale toxic dust from heavy metals. The miners sell what they find to refiners at local markets, who may not give a fair price. 

The Hazards of Cobalt Mining

Experts do not consider cobalt a “conflict mineral”—like tungsten, tantalum, tin, and gold—because the profits from the mines go to the miners, not to military groups for weapons purchases. But cobalt miners still have significant safety issues to worry about.

Amnesty International and Afrewatch’s 2016 report, This is What We Die For, compiled research about the human rights and health concerns of artisanal cobalt mining. The report highlights that since most miners do not have any safety equipment, they’re exposed to cobalt dust, which can cause asthma and breathing problems, and even a fatal disease called “hard metal lung disease.” One scientist from the University of Lubumbashi in the DRC told the Washington Post that a high number of premature births and birth defects may be linked to toxic exposure related to mining activity in the country overall.

miner holding pure cobalt
A miner in the DRC holds a stone with a cobalt deposit. Photo by Lena Mucha.

Hand-dug mines, which can be up to 330 feet deep, according to the Amnesty report, are poorly ventilated and are prone to collapse. There aren’t official data on the number of fatalities, but a DRC radio station tracked more than 80 miner deaths between 2014 and 2015. The report says, “The true figure is likely to be far higher, as many accidents go unrecorded, and bodies are left buried underground.”

Child Labor at the Mines

The DRC government has promised to eliminate child labor in mining by 2025. But with 40,000 children working there in cobalt mining alone, the problem is “massively complicated,” says Mark Dummett, business and human rights researcher at Amnesty International. He doesn’t believe the DRC can eliminate child labor that quickly.

“You can’t just send police in and chase kids out of the mines. You need to put in place all kinds of measures: They need to go to school instead, so there need to be schools in place. There need to be economic incentives for parents as well,” Dummett says.

He’s heartened by the country making such a commitment though. When Amnesty came into the country to do research on the problem in 2017, a government official had denied any children were working in mining at all.

What Big Tech Can Do

Darton Commodities, a company that buys and sells metals wholesale, says the world demand for cobalt is growing from 46,000 tons in 2016 to a projected 325,000 tons in 2030. That’s a 663 percent increase in only 14 years. In June 2018, at the time of print, a metric ton of cobalt cost $91,000. 

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analyst Caspar Rawles told Investing News Network (INN) that the supply for cobalt could become critical as soon as 2020, when most electric vehicles will come to market.

Cobalt mines do exist elsewhere in the world; Canada, Australia, and the US all have industrial mines that are far safer than artisanal mines and provide better pay. Even with new mines opening in these countries, both Rawles and Dummett say the demand for DRC cobalt will continue to increase.

“We forecast the DRC to become a bigger part of the cobalt supply pie, to become more dominant in the near term,” Rawles told INN. “There is no lithium-ion [battery] industry without the DRC.” 

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk promises that Tesla will only use cobalt mined in North America for its products, but Dummett thinks that won’t be possible because of the outsized portion of the supply that comes from the DRC.

Companies are racing to develop new batteries that use less cobalt content, so they won’t have to rely so heavily on the DRC, likely due more to the political instability in the country and the soaring price of the mineral, than to human rights concerns. But because the demand for lithium-ion batteries is so great for the booming electric vehicle market, Dummett says the demand for cobalt will rise even if the amount needed in each battery goes down.

The end game for tech companies wanting to be responsible is to tackle the health, safety, and human rights concerns around DRC cobalt mining.

“It’s very difficult for companies which rely on cobalt to avoid DRC cobalt, so they all have to address the problems [with mining in the country],” Dummett says. 

In February, Apple announced that it would buy its cobalt directly from miners, instead of buying the complete batteries from manufacturers, which get their cobalt through refiners. Apple is looking to sign contracts for several thousand metric tons per year. Samsung, Tesla, BMW, and Volkswagen are all racing to follow suit, according to reports from Bloomberg.

Companies are making this change because the supply of cobalt is dropping while the demand is skyrocketing, explains Dummett. They’re not doing it to improve transparency. That said, by cutting middle merchants, companies are creating a system in which they could have a huge impact on the wages and safety of workers mining cobalt if they wished, as they’d have control over every step of the mining process.

“At the moment, these miners work in dangerous and exploitative conditions, because companies just want to buy the cheapest available cobalt, without caring about where it has come from,” Dummett says. 

If they were working on the ground, , big tech companies could create an official industry where right now, artisanal mining is king. They could build mines that would pay adult laborers a fair wage, enough to feed their families and send their children to school, and provide safer conditions for mining.

Companies could also institute electronics take-back programs, to help increase the amount of old electronics that are responsibly recycled. Recyclers remove cobalt and other minerals from electronics so these minerals can be reused, which reduces the need to mine more.

Customers, Take Note 

To start creating change in the cobalt industry, Dummett says that companies like Apple that are securing multi-year cobalt supplies first need to zero in on where it comes from, especially if they have no sense now. 

Shockingly, 26 out of the 29 companies—including smelters, battery manufacturers, and consumer-facing tech companies—that Amnesty International contacted about their supply chains said they could not or would not disclose where they got their cobalt. It’s possible that some may not know their full supply chains.

“We think there’s a good chance that cobalt that’s been mined in these dangerous artisanal mines has entered the batteries of every major [tech] company. No company was meeting what we consider to be [best practices for] responsible sourcing of minerals,” Dummett says.

Consumers can do the following to pressure companies to do better for cobalt miners and the Earth: 

  • Ask questions: Dummett encourages consumers to ask tech companies questions, especially because there is no way to avoid cobalt without avoiding tech products altogether. The more companies get the sense that their customers care about cobalt miners, the more likely they are to change their supply chains for the better. 

    “A key question to ask companies is where they get their supplies from, and mention cobalt. Ask about tracing and sourcing, and about remediation, and what they’re doing to make things better,” Dummett says. “It has to start with transparency, before you even look at changing conditions on the ground.”
  • Recycle old electronics: It’s also critical to recycle your electronics. Taking cobalt from a battery where it’s already refined means relying less on new materials from the Earth.

    Call2Recycle is one of the largest battery recycling companies operating in North America. Last year, it collected 2.6 million pounds of lithium ion batteries, including cell phone and laptop batteries, and 85,000 of cell phones (It also recycles other types of batteries, including alkaline and nickel cadmium). 

    Call2Recycle CEO Carl Smith estimates those 2.6 million pounds represent less than five percent of the batteries on the market. He thinks a majority of unused, old batteries sit in drawers, as some folks forget about old technology in their homes, don’t know what to do with it, or are saving it for an emergency.

    One thing to be sure of is that any old electronics go to a trustworthy recycler. Some “recyclers” and scrap shops will take used batteries but will ship them to open-air heap recyclers in Asia and Africa, where poorly paid workers will break down the metals with little protection from dangerous chemicals.

    Recycling e-waste has more benefits than just yielding cobalt and other minerals for reuse. According to the 2017 United Nations report Global E-Waste Monitor, the estimated total potential value of materials in worldwide e-waste in 2016 was $68 billion. For every 1,000 tons of used electronics, 200 repair jobs can be created; a robust recycling system for devices could bring 45,000 new jobs. 

Recycle Your Electronics!

To reduce the need for new cobalt, it’s critical to recycle your old electronics—don’t let them sit in a drawer! 

  • Find an e-Stewards Recycler: These recyclers, certified by the Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards program, recycle responsibly, in ways that minimize toxic exposure for workers and the Earth, and without shipping recyclables overseas. They also ensure that toxic electronics aren’t processed by prison, slave, or child labor. 
  • Drop your old electronics at a Staples store: All US Staples stores accept old electronics, ink and toner cartridges, and rechargeable batteries for recycling. Staples is an e-Stewards Enterprise, meaning it’s committed to using only certified e-Stewards recyclers. 
  • Become an e-Stewards Envoy. Envoys are individuals who pledge to reduce, reuse, and recycle their electronics responsibly. They also commit to spreading the word about how e-waste harms workers and the Earth.
  • You can also responsibly recycle rechargeable, single-use, and cell phone batteries through Call2Recycle. Enter your zip code to find a battery drop-off box near you. You can also purchase battery-recycling kits from Call2Recycle, including kits for damaged lithium-based batteries.
From Green American Magazine Issue