Rather than deal with all four minerals, let us take a look at one mineral in depth: Gold. This will give a better understanding of the issues, both political as well as environmental.
Gold is a conflict metal, meaning that some armies are mining gold and selling it as a way of financing military operations, one major example being in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In addressing the problem in the DRC the United Nations “… urge[s] importers, processing industries and consumers of Congolese mineral products to exercise due diligence” (UN resolution 1952 sec 8). In the United States this has been addressed in section 1502 or the Dodd-Frank law which requires some companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals. This not only includes Apple and other electronic manufactures, but some jewelry manufactures as well (see for instance Signet Jewelers statement or the Responsible Jewelers Council). This has resulted in significant hardship for the Congolese some of whom have had to join the militias as a source of income. A good review of the current situation can be found here. The Dodd-Frank law itself has been targeted by President Trump and there have been suggestions that he will sign an executive order allowing companies to ignore that part of the statute.
Most of the affected operations are small artisanal operations. There is another problem with many of these mines, not only in the DRC, but around the world: the use of mercury in the refining process itself.
The earliest known human use of Gold was found in the Varna Necropolis in Bulgaria and dates to about 4,500 BC, ever since gold has been used for Jewelry. Its rarity and value made gold an ideal material for use in trading. Eventually Gold coins were minted, with the earliest gold coins being made some 2,700 years ago. Gold is sometimes mixed with silver in an alloy called Electrum. Gold coins continue to be minted and collected to this day. Approximately 47% of the gold processed in 2016 was used to make Jewelry, 45% of the gold used for either an investment or by central banks, and the remaining 8% was used in some sort of technology (6% electronics and 2% other).
Uses in Electronics
Gold conducts electricity, but not as well as silver or copper. However the connectors on your computer are often coated with a thin layer of Gold since gold does not tarnish, while copper does. Very thin layers of gold are also used to prevent oxidation of copper and other metals. Thin gold wires are used inside of computer chips to connect the chip itself to the connectors on the package. Gold coatings can be found in some rewriteable CD’s and DVD’s. For more information on the use of gold see here.
When gold is mined the gold has to be separated from the ore. Sometimes the gold particles are large enough that there are simple mechanical ways of separating the Gold from the ore (panning, using running water, vibrating tables, etc.). When this fails there are a number of modern techniques to separate the gold from the ore, some of them involving toxic chemicals. When done in a modern industrial environment these techniques can be done safely.
There is an ancient technique that mixes the gold ore with mercury. The gold and the mercury form an amalgam (mixture of mercury and gold). This amalgam is then burned, driving off the mercury and leaving the gold. This method was used in the California Gold rush in the 1800’s and has left a toxic legacy. Although this process is no longer used by the large corporations, it is still used for some small and artisanal scale gold mining operations. All too often the mercury is simply burned off into the air. This can result in very high mercury contamination in the vicinity of the area where the burning takes place. The United Nations has done a study on the impacts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it is also a documented problem in Colombia.
Demand and Supply for Gold
In 2016, over 3000 tonnes of Gold were mined and over 1000 tonnes of Gold were recycled. Gold is produced around the world, with China being the top producer in 2015 (490 metric tonnes) followed by Australia (300), Russia (242), The United States (200), Peru and Canada (both at 150), and South Africa (140). (For more see here).
Conflict Gold is usually a product of small Artisanal mines. As reported by Enough: “According to U.N. experts, an estimated 98 percent of gold produced by artisanal miners in Congo—8 to 12 tons worth roughly $400 million–is smuggled out of the country.” 12 tons is less than ½% of the world’s gold mining. When you add up the artisanal mines from around the world, it might add up to 12-15% of the total.
What Can We Do?
Waging war costs money, it always has. The key to conflict free minerals is eliminating the conflict. The idea of eliminating the source of income to the armies is a good one, but will only work if smuggling can be controlled and all countries agree to the strategy.
Responsible Sourcing has a ranking, accessible from the internet , based on the firms’ disclosures under Dodd- Frank. The organization Enough ranked electronics firms in 2012 and is in the process of doing so again in 2017, since the list is old you might want to compare the rankings by Enough to those of Responsible sourcing.
The issue of mercury use by the artisanal sources can only be met by education (some of the individuals do not understand the dangers of mercury), training, and the development of alternative strategies and techniques. There is not much that we as individuals can do, other than encourage the EPA to reach out to these miners.
Written by David Larrabee