Where Do Cell Phone Parts Come From?
There are children, as young as four, mining for pieces of valuable components for your next cell phone. Though it’s not talked about a lot, taking apart old cell phones and removing tiny pieces of precious metals and materials to be repurposed is a multi-billion-dollar industry. The precious metals cell phone manufacturers seek include tin, tungsten, gold, and tantalum (or cobalt blue) and may be exchanged on the black market – making these components “conflicted.” Even plastic can be repurposed and used for 3D printing.
How do you know if the smartphone phone you own was the product of child labor on conflicted commodities? While most big phone companies have filed plans and reports on their efforts to remove conflicted materials from their devices, those who outsource their phone production, to places like China, have limited control over where materials are purchased.
Mining Precious Metals For Smartphones
IPIS estimates that between 75 and 98 percent of the Gold from the Democratic Republic of Congo is exported illegally. This is also where the majority of Tantalum, Tin, and Tungsten are mined.
These metals are used extensively in electronics, from televisions to tablets, and they are certainly necessary components in cell phones. Here are a few examples of how these metals can be used:
- Tin: soldering circuit boards
- Tungsten: harden wires and electrodes
- Tantalum: make capacitors
- Gold: electronic contacts, connectors, and wires
Because the Congo families are poor and in great need of money, they work the mines for huge conglomerates. Without them, the components wouldn’t be mined, so you might think the hardworking Congolese would be paid handsomely, but quite the opposite is taking place. Some families are forced to make their children work, sadly to afford food, and some still may not even make enough to have two meals a day.
While there are technologies available to make the mining easier, these companies do not fund the operations. They force workers to go without equipment, having them mine by hand, in the worst working conditions you can imagine. They are out daily, in the open sun without health and safety regulations being in place or enforced. Some rebels of the land make matters worse by stealing from the workers regularly. It could be a cruel reality for many families with no real laws in place.
Some reports suggest stolen Gold may be used in exchange to purchase firearms; 100kg of Gold can fund the purchase of 5,000 AK-47s. That is approximately 220 pounds of Gold or 3,527 ounces. There is no way of knowing how often this amount of Gold is secured, however, if it were used on humanitarian efforts, instead of on weaponry, the 220 pounds of Gold would generate almost $4.4 million.
United States and Foreign Legislation
In the United States, additional legislation has been called for under the Dodd-Frank Act to scrutinize purchases of over 100kg of precious resources like Gold. However, it’s nearly impossible to follow a paper trail when Gold is funneled through various ports before landing in the US. The Act is not supposed to be put into law until 2021, if at all.
In China, a massive manufacturer of electronics including phones, commodities are regulated more loosely than in the US, and Gold is not regulated at all. This gives suppliers of “hot” gold a considerable dumping ground to unload their product, which is paid for quite liberally.
Humanitarian groups, such as The Enough Project, have begun to shine a light on companies such as Apple, Google, HP, Intel, and Samsung and their efforts to eliminate the use of conflicted sourced commodities.
EcoLogo has set parameters on the use of conflict-mined commodities and issues Gold Certifications to companies who are diligently removing conflicted elements from their products. While these are small actions, the humanitarian groups believe this is a step in the right direction.
Smartphone Parts and E-Waste
There has been an influx of phone repurposing efforts, alongside repurposing other electronics. Through the use of technology, the tiny pieces of tin, tantalum, copper, tungsten, and gold can be removed from discarded phones and repurposed.
Studies have shown that mining costs 13 times more than salvaging and repurposing discarded phones, or “e-waste.” In 2016, 870 million pounds of phones were discarded that contained $45 billion tons of e-waste. (The raw materials that could have possibly been recovered valued over $10 billion)
Nearly all of the e-waste mining efforts can be automated, but there is still room for adding new jobs to facilitate the process. With the help of manual labor, there are some machines capable of disassembling about 200 phones per hour.
Mining for cell phone parts is a highly contended topic. With the use of inhumane and unsafe business practices, countries like the United States are cracking down on the importation of metals and raw materials entering the country. With a new wave of e-waste mining breaking into the workforce, these materials, previously acquired through horrific means, could halt importation.
The next time you are in the market for a new phone, think about where the components within it came from. You may be less likely to hand it over to your four-year-old to play with knowing there’s a chance that a four-year-old in the Congo could have picked precious metals from the earth to help make your cell phone.