Can Hipsters Live With Congolese Cobalt?

Youth cleaning cobalt Photo Credit - Getty Images

Youth cleaning cobalt ore
Photo Credit – Getty Images

The lithium ion battery is becoming ubiquitous.

These rechargeable, portable batteries power our mobile phones, tablets, laptops and cars, providing longer battery life, low self-discharge, better recharge life and comparatively low weight.

Many of us take these benefits for granted, not thinking much beyond the brand of our phone, computer or car — other than the fact it is better with a lithium ion battery.

There are issues with cobalt, a key element in lithium ion batteries, mined and produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to the Washington Post,

The world’s soaring demand for cobalt is at times met by workers, including children, who labor in harsh and dangerous conditions. An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures, according to workers, government officials and evidence found by The Washington Post during visits to remote mines. Deaths and injuries are common. And the mining activity exposes local communities to levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects, health officials say.

“60 percent of the world’s cobalt originates in Congo — a chaotic country rife with corruption and a long history of foreign exploitation of its natural resources,” Todd Frankel of the  Washington Post wrote. “A century ago, companies plundered Congo’s rubber sap and elephant tusks while the country was a Belgian colony. Today, more than five decades after Congo gained its independence, it is minerals that attract foreign companies.”

Image Credit: The Washington Post

Image Credit: The Washington Post

Cobalt is not covered under U.S. law regarding conflict minerals. When Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, it directed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to draft rules for companies that use conflict minerals — tantalum, tin, gold and tungsten — when deemed “necessary to the functionality or production of a product.”

“Congress enacted (this section) of the Act because of concerns that the exploitation and trade of conflict minerals by armed groups is helping to finance conflict in the DRC region and is contributing to an emergency humanitarian crisis,” according to the SEC web site.

Some advocate inclusion of cobalt in Dodd-Frank rules.

Conditions among cobalt miners in the Congo are deplorable compared to hipsters who use phones in part produced by their hands. Can hipsters live with Congolese cobalt?

Our social responsibility regarding Congolese extraction and production of cobalt is unclear. Like much of the work that supports our global supply chain cobalt mining has been out of sight and out of mind. There is no adequate, intuitive answer. Nonetheless, users of lithium ion batteries share responsibility for the conditions in Congo whether we are aware of them or not.

To learn more, read the entire Washington Post article, The Cobalt Pipeline: Tracing the path from deadly hand-dug mines in Congo to consumers phones and laptops, by Todd C. Frankel, Michael Robinson Chavez and Jorge Ribas.

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