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Conflict Minerals and the Human Cost of Our Electronics

Naman Bajaj
January 18, 2024
phone taken apart

Our electronics are an amalgamation of metals. Let’s take a smartphone for example. Tin is used to solder metal components together, tantalum is in the capacitors, tungsten helps our phones vibrate, and gold is in circuit board connectors.

These metals are known as conflict minerals. It’s due to their potential origin in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the corruption and instability that exists at the mines of these minerals.

Conflict minerals and the Democratic Republic of Congo

The African country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sits on top of an estimated $24 trillion in untapped mineral resources. The people of the country have suffered through poverty and violence for the last few decades, and the money generated from the mining of these metals is used to fund armed conflict in the region.

The majority of the mining in DRC happens informally, with workers, including children, toiling away using hand tools in what are known as artisanal and small-scale mines. Although this is hazardous and unregulated, it’s one of the very few sources of income available to the DRC residents.

The situation is so dire for them that they are willing to jeopardize their health and safety, even risking being buried underground, to enter these mines and extract metals like Tantalum. Manufacturers use tantalum in resistors and semiconductors, and approximately 40% of global production happens in DRC.

Various organizations have tried to regulate this industry

In the past decade, African countries, intergovernmental organizations, and companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Tesla have attempted to clean up these mineral supply chains by putting in measures to trace and verify the supply chain. Acts like the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010 require U.S. companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals.

There are even organizations that are doing on-the-ground tracing. These organizations train government agents to tag and seal bags that come from registered mines. But, there have been leaks in the system where corrupt agents unlawfully tag the bags from unregistered mines.

So as consumers, we can never be sure if the minerals in our electronics are fully conflict-free or if the mines where they originated are dangerous, environmentally destructive, or use child labor.

One thing that is within our control is promoting the reuse of electronics. We can do this by purchasing refurbished electronics and selling our phones and laptops instead of throwing them away. By doing so, we can extend the lifespan of these products, reducing the need for new electronics production and the mining of conflict minerals. If you can’t donate or sell your old electronics for reuse, it is important to recycle them properly.

Naman Bajaj
January 18, 2024

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