Have you ever heard of conflict diamonds? The phrase refers to diamonds that originate in war-torn areas and are sold to buy arms or in other ways fund a conflict. Turns out diamonds aren’t the only resource financing wars—you may be walking around with a conflict cell phone in your pocket.
Tantalum is one of many “conflict minerals” that are key components of cell phones, laptops, tablets, other types of technology that use miniature circuit boards. Tantalum and other conflict minerals like tin, tungsten, and gold are mined in a number of countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where they are often extracted using forced and child labor. The money made through the sale of these minerals not only fuels the cycle of slavery but also funds a protracted and bloody conflict in the DRC that has claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives, according to a 2007 mortality survey by the International Rescue Committee. War crimes include the use of child soldiers and the massacre of civilians.
Tantalum mining has also devastated populations of the Eastern Mountain Gorillas, which are hunted by the isolated miners for food.
Fortunately, this issue is receiving more recognition. In August of 2012, the Securities and Exchange Commission published new regulations around the Dodd-Frank Act, requiring electronics manufacturers to trace and disclose where potential conflict minerals in their products are sourced.
Under the Act, companies must file their first disclosure reports on May 31, 2014 and annually on May 31st thereafter. Todd Larsen, Green America’s director of corporate responsibility programs, is cautiously optimistic. “It’s good that the industry is finally addressing this,” he says. “But we need to keep a close eye on the effects of these regulations to see if they’re going to amount to real change.”
Industry groups—including the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers—are still fighting the conflict minerals disclosure rule in a federal appeals court. They argue that the Dodd-Frank Act imposes “staggering costs.”
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, “The manufacturers’ association estimates that about 22,000 companies affected by the law would have to pay as much as $16 billion to perform their due diligence. Claigan, which evaluates regulatory compliance for companies, says the total number of affected companies is under 2,000 and the price tag no more than $180 million, if that.”
With conflict minerals present in so many of the devices we depend on every day, what is the green thing to do? First, buying less is always a green option. Don’t upgrade your phones until absolutely necessary, and continue to use your current phone for as long as possible.
Second, it’s vital to recycle your cell phone and other electronics instead of throwing them away, so the conflict minerals inside can be reused. For advice on how to responsibly recycle your electronics, subscribe to Green American magazine.