The real cost of your mobile phone or laptop: conflict minerals in electronics manufacturing

Author : Karen Mascarenhas | Director | Mascarenhas PR

01 November 2019

Conflict minerals in electronics manufacturing - gold

Today, few of us living within the G8 countries or BRIC economies could do without our mobile phones or laptops, which have become an integral part of our daily lives. Technologically, we are securing ever more sophisticated features at increasingly competitive prices. So, as consumers, we seem to be getting outstanding value for money...

This viewpoint was originally featured in the November 2019 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

But as Karen Mascarenhas, Director at electronics PR agency, Mascarenhas PR tells us, the human cost of our devices can sometimes be far higher...

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), situated in central Africa, this subject has an entirely different perspective, and the focus of this article is to highlight the true cost of our mobile phones and other devices in terms of human suffering to the mining communities that supply the raw materials for the electronics industry. The DRC is, in fact, the country where Joseph Conrad set his iconic novella in 1899 – Heart of Darkness, in which Marlow, the main character, heads up the river in search of enigmatic Kurtz, who utters those famous last words: “The horror! The horror!”

This present horror is a largely unreported series of conflicts in DRC, where some 5.4 million lives have been lost and 2 million people displaced in recent years – the greatest conflict since WW2. It is in this environment that the electronics industry sources its vital four precious elements, namely 3TG – Tantalum, Tin, Tungsten and Gold, for use in our laptops, mobiles and various high performance products for electronic, medical, aerospace and defence applications.

This article will review the journey of these four elements from the heart of Africa, across to the Far East, and then onto the electronics companies that develop and manufacture these products for our use every waking hour – and will examine the human cost of our mobile phones and laptops to see how we can minimise the impact of this modern day exploitation and slavery.

Conflict minerals – 3TG

These are minerals mined, largely, in areas of armed conflict and appalling human rights abuses, which are then sold or traded by armed groups who make huge profits. Often, civilians, including children as young as 8, are captured and used as slave labour by criminal armed groups, such as the FARDC – rogue brigades within Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the FDLR – Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, whose remit is based on savage violence, kidnap, intimidation and rape – anything but democratic! (watch Congo: Blood, gold & mobile phones by The Guardian on YouTube to learn more)

The conflict minerals are then smuggled via Rwanda and Uganda – still controlled by armed militia – to the East African coastline, where they are shipped on to Far East countries, such as China, India and Malaysia. Here, the ores are integrated into legal minerals, which are then incorporated into the electronic components used by manufacturing and production sites worldwide.

For decades, this has been a critical problem  for the DRC, whose mineral wealth, ironically, is enormous, while its people – for the most part, live in abject poverty.

Conflict minerals in electronics manufacturing - mine

Coltan – columbite-tantalite

This is the metal ore from which tantalum is extracted, and is used in electronics for the production of high reliability capacitors. These have applications in laptops, computers, mobile phones, HD video and digital cameras, and gaming consoles. It is also used for critical aircraft requirements, for jet-engine turbine blades, and medical use, such as surgical components, heart pacemakers and hearing aids.

Figures indicate that the DRC accounts for between 65-80% of the world’s columbite-tantalite (coltan).

Wolframite

This ore is used for the extraction of tungsten, with its derivative, tungsten carbide, providing a very hard-wearing and rugged solution for electronics design engineers – being a material of choice for the vibration mechanism in mobile phones. It is also used widely for metal wiring, electrodes and contacts within lighting applications in the electronics and electrical markets, as well as in heating and welding industries.

Casserite

This is the red ore from which tin is derived and traded on the London and other Stock Exchanges, and is used principally within the electronics industry for plating and soldering circuit boards (see Grand Theft Congo – DRC by Journeyman Pictures on YouTube).

Gold

Considered a rare metal, this element is a vital component within the plating process for critical use interconnection products, and an important part of the chemical compounds used for semiconductor manufacturing and aerospace applications.

In addition to its reserves of 3TG, the DRC accounts for a staggering 49% of the world’s cobalt reserves, 3% of copper, with gold and diamond reserves – which remain largely unexplored.

Conflict minerals in electronics manufacturing - mine-child

Legislation and the supply chain

UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights highlight the fact that all companies have a key role to play. And the US went further, when the US Congress enshrined this by passing the Frank Dodd Act – legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama on 21st July 2010, which applies to all companies that report to the US Security & Exchange Commission (SEC).

On 1st January 2021, a new law will come into force across the EU – the Conflict Minerals Regulation, which will help regulate 3TG trading in Europe, covering Due Diligence and Implementation. Towards helping companies adhere to Guidelines, the European Commission will create a list of global smelters and refiners, who source these minerals responsibly.

In the UK, DFID and the World Bank are co-funding a major mineral sector reform programme (PROMINES), which will improve regulation of the DRC minerals sector to improve conditions for miners.

Companies are in jeopardy of being compromised, knowingly or unknowingly, along the supply chain by conflict minerals. This can take place “upstream”, from the mine to the smelter, en route from DRC to the Far East, or “downstream”, from the smelter to manufacturers of electronic, aerospace, defence, automotive and medical components.

Critically, what should be recognised is the considerable sums of money involved relating to tantalum alone in the electronics sector. For just mobile phone applications, where each smartphone in 2010 contained tantalum worth a mere $0.15, the sales for this element were estimated at $93m, so values of the current market can be exponentially referenced by the incredible growth of current mobile sales worldwide.

The science & technology available to track conflict tantalum

Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) can be most effectively used to offer companies geochemical ‘fingerprinting’, which in turn allows manufacturers to track mining locations, and therefore ownership of these mines. This research, conducted in Germany and the US, offers clear scientific evidence to help manufacturers make the correct choice.

In 2016, the AVX Corporation, the world’s foremost supplier of tantalum capacitors, announced a Solutions for Hope pilot, designed to test new options for responsibly sourcing tin, tantalum and tungsten (the 3Ts) from Rwanda. Designated the 3Ts Due Diligence Options Pilot, the initiative is evaluating two new diligence options: a new cloud-based due diligence process, developed by the Better Sourcing Program (BSP), employed in combination with AVX’s innovative Geological Passporting chain of custody system. The BSP tool utilises a proprietary mobile app to enable real-time electronic monitoring, chain of custody tracking and issues reporting, providing much faster access to data than existing systems. And AVX’s Geological Passporting system determines the mineralogical, geochemical and geochronological characteristics of ore at each mine, which is expected to validate origins, reduce smuggling and reduce the cost of due diligence processes.

Conflict minerals in electronics manufacturing - mine-child_580x280.jpg

What can we do to help?

Design engineers worldwide, but especially those working for multi-billion dollar consumer electronics companies, should specify conflict free minerals within their component selection instructions and bespoke designs.

Manufacturers of components using the 3TG elements need to employ procurement and supply chain management who are wholly committed to securing conflict free minerals for their manufacturing processes, with the final objective of wholly excluding conflict sourced product.

Meanwhile, every one of us, as consumers, can let our voices be heard – by contacting key manufacturers via social media to generate consumer demand, insisting that the mobile phone in our hands is not contaminated with conflict tantalum, tin, tungsten or gold – contaminated with the suffering of millions of people in the DRC or other parts of the mining community.

In the US, for instance, various universities are helping to comply by sourcing computers that come with conflict free mineral guarantees.

After all, in terms of economies of scale, in order to abolish the slave trade in previous centuries, it was far more costly to Western Europe and the US – both in terms of the Civil War for the latter, where the US paid a heavy price to liberate slaves, and the vast GDP revenues associated with European countries, that depended on sugar, coffee, tea and cotton plantations. Reform penalised the vast investments in slave trade, and required dismantling or complete restructuring of these estates with paid labour, after the Abolition of Slavery law was enacted.

Above all, as we head towards 2020, we need to put in the effort and show courage to ensure a conflict free environment, without exploitation or the use of slave labour in the DRC and other worldwide mining communities and countries.

In the electronics, aerospace, space and defence markets, our endeavours need to be practical if we are to make this objective a reality – despite the operational and economic constraints this may entail.

My sincere thanks to John Prendergast (see John Prendergast Briefs Security Council in First-Ever Session on Corruption and Conflict on YouTube), who has been a continual inspiration for years, to the AVX Corporation and to the Enough Project for all the images provided and for their continued efforts to provide momentum towards the eradication of the conflict mineral trade.       [Karen Mascarenhas, Director, Mascarenhas PR]


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