Recycling and reusing electronics with organizations like GreenCitizen reduces the demand for more raw materials to be extracted from the earth in order to produce more new electronics. Besides reducing environmental degradation, this also reduces the use of conflict minerals – read on to find out why that’s such a big deal!
What are conflict minerals?
Conflict minerals are minerals that come from mines where the profit fuels conflict in Congo: tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. If you’ve seen (or know the gist of) Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, you can think of conflict minerals as being part of the same issues as the conflict diamonds in that movie. Conflict minerals are in components of all electronics.
In case you’re a techie interested in the inner workings of electronics, below are the electronic components conflict minerals are used for.
- tin: solder on circuit boards
- tantalum: capacitors
- tungsten: interconnect material in integrated circuits, metallic films, electrodes
- gold: electrical connectors and electrical contacts
Now, to note some technicalities:
-Except for gold, the above listed substances aren’t the minerals themselves; they’re the elements extracted from the minerals cassiterite, coltan, and wolframite, respectively. But when people talk about conflict minerals, they refer to the ‘3T’s and G’ highlighted above.
-When someone says “conflict mineral,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are actually using a mineral that they know is from Congo; they could be referring to a mineral that could come from Congo. For example, if a jewelry company says “we produce a product that requires the use of a conflict mineral,” they might mean that they are making jewelry that requires gold, which could be “conflict-free” (aka not from Congo).
More on the conflict in Congo
The eastern Congo has been at war since the early 1990s. Thus far there are over 5.4 million casualties, making this the deadliest conflict since World War II. This conflict also includes significant use of child soldiers and sexual violence towards women.
Most mines in the eastern Congo are controlled by armed groups. Civilians are often coerced into working at these mines, which the armed groups make hundreds of millions of dollars from.
Minerals are smuggled out of Congo through neighboring countries, like Rwanda and Tanzania. Then, they’re shipped to smelters around the world (primarily in Asia) for refinement, where they can be mixed with minerals not originating from the Congo before being used in manufacturing.
This video is also a great summary of the issues surrounding conflict minerals in electronics:
What’s being done
Conflict minerals in electronics are (thankfully) a growing part of both the public’s and industry’s conscience. The Fairphone has sprung up, aiming to be a conflict mineral free smart phone, and Intel is now producing a conflict mineral free microprocessor.
However, as mentioned in the previous section, conflict and conflict-free minerals are currently frequently mixed in the smelting process, making it difficult to trace mineral origin in a final product. Efforts to require a more transparent supply chain will hopefully decrease this mixing.
The 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act includes a section (Section 1502, if you want to look it up) that requires American companies to trace and audit their conflict mineral supply chains, and to work towards ensuring that their products are conflict-free. Companies must submit an annual conflict minerals report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
What you can do
Raise Hope for Congo is an organization with great resources for getting involved in the fight against conflict minerals. For example, if you need to buy electronics new, you can buy them from a company that is working towards conflict-free mineral use based on Raise Hope For Congo’s company rankings. You can also become politically active, even by simply signing a letter, via one of the options provided on Raise Hope for Congo’s “Take Action” webpage.
Additionally, make sure that you recycle your electronics! (Bet you knew I was going to say that.) GreenCitizen has just partnered with Bay Ink & Toner, Cartridge World, Cole Hardware, and Sports Basement to create opportunities to recycle in Fremont, Oakland, Sunnyvale, Walnut Creek, and more. Recycling helps the planet and the people on it.