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Ethical cobalt mining is critical to electronic markets

21 March 2023
While cobalt is a critical component in many electronics, human rights abuses run rampant in the industry. Source: Janar Siniväli/Abode Stock

There is no such thing as clean cobalt, according to Siddharth Kara, author, researcher, screenwriter and activist on modern slavery.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the world’s largest source of cobalt, a critical component in producing electronics and batteries. But this valuable mineral comes at an immense human cost. In his book “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives,” Kara reveals how cobalt mining has been linked to severe human rights abuses in the DRC, including child labor and dangerous working conditions.

Given this, what role can the electronics industry create in finding potential solutions for the creation of a more ethical supply chain for cobalt extraction.

Cobalt's value in electronics

Cobalt is an essential metal with many applications, from batteries and magnets to catalysts and superalloys. Cobalt has unique properties, strength, corrosion resistance and ability to conduct electricity. Obviously, this makes it highly sought after in the electronics industry. As technology advances, the demand for cobalt continues to grow.

Lithium-ion batteries in many everyday devices such as smartphones and laptops contain cobalt. The metal provides stability and helps increase the battery's capacity and life span. Cobalt also plays an essential role in powering electric vehicles, providing them with the energy they need to run efficiently.

“The cobalt that's being mined in the Congo is in every single lithium-ion rechargeable battery manufactured in the world today, every smartphone, every tablet, every laptop, and crucially every electric vehicle, so you and I, we can't function on a day-to-day basis, without cobalt,” Kara said in his book.

Cobalt is used in anything from smartphones to laptops and electric vehicles. Source: Ai Inspire/Adobe Stock Cobalt is used in anything from smartphones to laptops and electric vehicles. Source: Ai Inspire/Adobe Stock

Where is all the Cobalt?

Half of the world's available cobalt supply is in the DRC. Australia is the next cobalt-rich country, followed by Indonesia and Cuba. Artisanal mining techniques are often used to extract cobalt. Artisanal mining is a form of small-scale mining that involves individuals or small groups extracting minerals from the Earth using primitive tools and techniques.

It often occurs in developing countries, where miners work in hazardous conditions to extract ore from the ground. This type of mining has been linked to environmental degradation, human rights abuses and child labor.

"In 2021, about 72%, almost three-fourths of the world's cobalt supply, came out of that small patch of the Congo," Kara said.

The dangers of artisanal cobalt mining

Although the EPA has failed to give concrete evidence that cobalt is carcinogenic, it remains hazardous with prolonged exposure. Chronic inhalation of cobalt can result in various respiratory effects, such as respiratory irritation, wheezing, asthma, decreased lung function, pneumonia and fibrosis. Cardiac and gastrointestinal problems might arise as well due to exposure.

Additionally, dangers that are inherent to mining are always present including navigating dark tunnels with little oxygen. Fatalities due to mining collapses are common in the DRC.

How the electronics industry can help

Sourcing is difficult to trace due to most production from cobalt mining being sold directly back to the industrial mining community. Proactively tracing supply chains can help lead to responsible sourcing and increased visibility.

Kara also recommends:

  • Showing the working conditions to company executives.
  • Providing a fair wage to adults so children are not put at risk.
  • Developing new methods that meet health and safety standards.
  • Drafting laws to ensure the standards are met.
  • Pressuring China, which owns many mines, and the DRC to eliminate human rights abuses.

About the author

Michael Huff is a father, Autism activist and former full-time RV adventurer. With over 25 years of experience in the supply chain management industry, Michael loves telling stories that engage and inform audiences. His passion for writing led him to pursue his dreams by regularly contributing to The New Warehouse Podcast and Warehouse Revolution. He covers topics such as supply chain, automation, sustainability — anything related to Industry 4.0 — with detail-oriented facts and high semantic richness. Michael believes there is always a chance to learn, so you should learn everything possible and use what works for you!

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