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A reportage by the Washington Post exposes the exploitation of Congo miners behind the boom of lithium batteries consumption.
Exploitation of resources often comes along with exploitation of human beings. This is the core of a long reportage by the Washington Post about the supply chain leading from cobalt mines to lithium batteries. These batteries are commonly found in all daily-use electronic devices – smartphones, tablets, laptops – and their use is expected to increase with hybrid and electric cars. The exploitation connected with this resource could be limited with the adoption of circular economy: the raw materials contained in these devices could be recycled and reintegrated in the production chain.
One of the components of lithium batteries is cobalt, a key material in the realization of the cathode (the negative pole of the battery). According to the Washington Post, smartphone batteries contain 5 to 10 g of refined cobalt: a considerable amount, if multiplied by the billions of smartphones in the world, but nothing in comparison with electric car batteries, which contain 15 kg each. According to the estimates of the Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, the worldwide demand for cobalt, which has already increased by threefold over the last five years, will double by 2020.
The demand for cobalt is expected to skyrocket while its prices are expected to sink due to the consumption rush: this will add even more pressure on the cobalt production chain, a system affected by exploitation, child labour and extremely low wages. The Post’s reportage gives a glimpse of the working conditions of miners in Congo, where about 60% of the world’s cobalt is mined. The diggers mostly work with rudimentary equipment and almost non-existent supervision or safety measures. And there’s more: according to Amnesty International, 40 thousand children work in Congo’s mines for the equivalent of $2 for 12 hours of work.
This situation needs to be fought with stricter controls and the adoption of an ethical supply chain. In addition to this, though, it can also be contained with a change of economic model. While the current model is based on consumerism and planned obsolescence, a circular model would be based on longer-lasting devices that are made to be repaired, refurbished and recycled in every component.