Where the cobalt and graphite in our batteries comes from

The Washington Post recently published 2 articles highlighting the disastrous effects that mining for cobalt and graphite have caused to both the workers and the areas surrounding the mines. Dubbed the battery series, the focus is on minerals that make up lithium ion batteries that exist in most (if not all) mobile electronic devices.

Accompanied by graphics, videos and images, both articles are eye-openers.

1. The Cobalt Pipeline

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.[…]

[…] Lithium-ion batteries were supposed to be different from the dirty, toxic technologies of the past. Lighter and packing more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries, these cobalt-rich batteries are seen as “green.” They are essential to plans for one day moving beyond smog-belching gasoline engines. Already these batteries have defined the world’s tech devices.

Smartphones would not fit in pockets without them. Laptops would not fit on laps. Electric vehicles would be impractical. In many ways, the current Silicon Valley gold rush — from mobile devices to driverless cars — is built on the power of lithium-ion batteries.

But this comes at an exceptional cost.

A trace of graphite is in consumer tech. In these Chinese villages, it’s everywhere.

A t night, the pollution around the village has an otherworldly, almost fairy-tale quality.

“The air sparkles,” said Zhang Tuling, a farmer in a village in far northeastern China. “When any bit of light hits the particles, they shine.”

By daylight, the particles are visible as a lustrous gray dust that settles on everything. It stunts the crops it blankets, begrimes laundry hung outside to dry and leaves grit on food. The village’s well water has become undrinkable, too.

Horrific stuff. What are we doing to our fellow men?

This is the ugly side of globalisation. Without a direct link between the consumers, factories and suppliers, no one has a clue where things really come from. Exporting your manufacturing and mining overseas might result in a cheaper product but it means that labourers are not protected and are often vulnerable to exploitation. It’s time for companies to play a larger role in pressurising their suppliers to provide better conditions for the workers who are sacrificing their health and safety.

The other alternative is for consumers to turn to locally sourced and manufactured products. In fact I think there will be a resurgence in ‘locally made’ goods in the coming years as artisanal products get more valued. Hopefully then stories like the ones linked to above will become a thing of the past.