Families of Child Miners Sue Tech Companies Over Human Rights Abuses

In the January 9, 2020 edition of Triple Pundit, Roya Sabri reported on a lawsuit filed by International Rights Advocates (IRA) on behalf of child miners and their families, against several major tech companies, including Apple, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Microsoft, Dell and Tesla. The lawsuit argues that tech companies, profiting from the cobalt supplies which are often supported by child miners’ efforts, should be responsible for the wellbeing of those subsistence cobalt miners.

From Sabri’s article:

The DRC supplies the world with more than 60 percent of its cobalt. A good portion is mined by subsistence miners — independent contractors who take it upon themselves to find and unearth the metal. The miners climb down shafts just wide enough for their bodies with no more than a flimsy headlamp, a hammer and a sack. If a worker gets hurt or dies, buyers take no responsibility and do not offer assistance or support. Reports by Amnesty International and The Washington Post in 2016 revealed these inhumane conditions, but little has changed for the better since then.

Young children are entering this work, often to help their families pay for the essentials needed to survive. The lawsuit’s plaintiff, labeled Jane Doe 1, reports that her nephew began working in mines to pay his $6 a month school fee. Last year, the tunnel where he was digging collapsed. The family never found his body.

The narratives documented by the lawsuit show that this boy’s story is not an isolated incident.

Read the full story at Triple Pundit: https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2020/silicon-valley-giants-sued-over-human-rights-abuses-cobalt-supply-chain/86141.

For the IRA press release related to this lawsuit, see http://www.iradvocates.org/press-release/iradvocates-files-forced-child-labor-case-against-tech-giants-apple-alphabet-dell.

For previous SEI posts related to cobalt in the electronics supply chain, see https://sustainable-electronics.istc.illinois.edu/?s=cobalt.

RSN Recommends Regulatory Enforcement, Investor Engagement to Urge Corporate Due Diligence on Conflict Minerals

The Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), is a project of the nonprofit organization As You Sow, dedicated to ending human rights abuses and forced labor associated with the raw materials found in consumer products. On October 18, 2018, RSN released its Mining the Disclosures 2018: An Investor Guide to Conflict Minerals Reporting in Year Five report, which “analyzes 206 companies’ supply chain due diligence efforts regarding conflict minerals, including tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, or 3TG. In the fifth consecutive year of analyzing companies’ conflict minerals compliance and reporting, the report shows that a large number of the companies’ scores stayed flat or decreased.”

Read the full press release at https://www.sourcingnetwork.org/press-release-mtd-2018. You can download this year’s report, those from previous years, and watch a webinar about the 2018 report at https://www.sourcingnetwork.org/mining-the-disclosures.

Cover of the Mining the Disclosures report

According to RSN, “The technology sector outperformed all others, while laggard industries included integrated oil & gas, steel, business services, and building materials. Innovative companies showed constant improvements, including increased participation in on-the-ground initiatives, proactive risk assessments, and comprehensive risk mitigation measures. However, compared to 2017, a majority of companies’ scores that reflect alignment with the OECD’S Conflict Minerals Guidance declined. The results show a global lack of desire to improve due diligence practices over the last few years.

“Conflict minerals” include tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (aka 3TG). They are so called because these minerals are often sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, and in recent years, unfortunately also one of the most war-torn. Militant groups controlling mines have used violence, including murder, torture, rape and other sexual violence, forced labor and use of child soldiers, in their control of the populace to further their profit from sale of these minerals and their war efforts. Conflict minerals are used in a wide variety of electronic devices, and are also found in a variety of other products, including jewelry, dental products, tools, biocides, ammunition, medical devices, and others. For more information, see https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/conflict-minerals/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_resource#Conflict_minerals.

Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Action, passed in 2010 and implemented starting in 2012 by the Securities and Exchange Commission, requires that all companies publicly traded in the the US with products containing any of the four conflict minerals report on the source of the minerals in their supply chain. This required transparency has not eliminated human rights issues associated with conflict mineral sourcing, but it has demonstrably improved conditions for Congolese miners. Before passage of the law, the UN reported that nearly every mine in Congo was controlled by armed groups. As of 2016, the independent research institute, International Peace Information Service (IPIS) found that 79% of “3T” miners surveyed in eastern Congo were working in mines where no armed group involvement had been reported. (See https://enoughproject.org/special-topics/progress-and-challenges-conflict-minerals-facts-dodd-frank-1502).

RSN cites the Trump administration’s “contempt for regulations” and threats made last year to “suspend Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act” as part of the reason for the decline in corporate due diligence related to conflict minerals sourcing. “The disregard of corporate responsibility for conflict minerals during the Trump administration is concerning,” said Raphaël Deberdt, author of the Mining the Disclosures 2018 report. “The increasing neglect of the conflict minerals legislation from some companies over the past few years has been a source of human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And these abuses extend beyond the 3TG sphere.

According the RSN press release: ‘Companies involved in mineral supply chains — from mines to retailers — now face additional challenges that must be integrated into corporate risk mitigation frameworks. The increasing importance of cobalt, lithium, and nickel in the automotive and technology sectors should trigger red flags in compliance departments in a broader risk context, including environmental degradation, organizational health and safety, human rights, and community impacts. Similarly, the upcoming EU regulation will necessitate increased due diligence from importers of 3TG, not only from the Congo region, but from all conflict-affected and high-risks areas. “The results of this year’s report demonstrate the need for an increase in regulatory enforcement and investor engagement that urge companies to undertake proactive due diligence efforts,” said Patricia Jurewicz, vice president of Responsible Sourcing Network. “These programs must continuously improve to address and mitigate the evolving material risks associated with conflict mineral supply chains.”

RSN further asserted that “leading companies” such as Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Qualcomm, Ford, Royal Philips, and HP “prove that taking a due diligence approach to reduce harmful impacts on the communities producing the raw materials in our electronics is an achievable and beneficial business model.

The Mining the Disclosures report was sponsored by As You Sow and the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), which is holding its annual conference on October 31-November 2, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA.


Researchers Use Ultrasound to Recover Gold from Electronic Scrap

The last few months have been ripe with reports on new research related to material recovery from electronic scrap (commonly referred to as “e-scrap” or “e-waste”), as highlighted in a previous post. I’ve learned of yet another exciting innovation in this field, thanks to a feature written by Jared Paben in the latest edition (4/19/18) of E-Scrap News.

As Paben reports, researchers from Sandia National Laboratories have developed a method to use ultrasonic waves, coupled with surfactants, to cheaply and efficiently recover gold from scrap electronics. Their experiments involved application of two different surfactants to the surface of a cell phone SIM card, which was then submerged in water. Ultrasonic waves were applied, which imploded micro-bubbles on the SIM card’s surface. Upon collapse of these micro-bubbles, micro-jets ejected gold nanoparticles from the card’s surface, and the nanoparticles were captured and stabilized by the surfactants.

According to the research group’s paper, published in the journal Small on 3/24/18), this mechanical method may not only present an effective way of reclaiming gold and other metals from electronic scrap, but could potentially be used to manufacture gold nanoparticles from native gold metal directly upon recovery from mining, which they say “may represent the greenest possible approach to nanoparticle synthesis.” (Citation: J. Watt, M. J. Austin, C. K. Simocko, D. V. Pete, J. Chavez, L. M. Ammerman, D. L. Huber, Small 2018, 1703615. https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201703615)

You can read more about this research in a 4/3/18 article from New Scientist.

To learn about cavitation and cavitation bubbles, the phenomena which allow this mechanical process to work, see https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/cavitationbubbles.jsp and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavitation.

For more information on gold in electronics, see How Much Gold is in Smartphones and Computers? and Uses of Gold in Industry, Medicine, Computers, Electronics, Jewelry.

To learn about the properties and applications of gold nanoparticles, see https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/technical-documents/articles/materials-science/nanomaterials/gold-nanoparticles.html.

US Federal Legislation Page Updated on SEI Web Site

Photo of US Capitol BuildingThe US Federal Legislation page on the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) web site has been recently updated. Updates include:

Visit the SEI Law & Policy section for full details on these US Federal measures, as well as information for the US state and local level and international policies. To suggest additions or revisions to the Law & Policy pages, contact Joy Scrogum.

International Sustainable Electronics Competition: Sponsorship Opportunities

Donations are being accepted to support the International Sustainable Electronics Competition, part of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC). These donations are used for cash prizes in the competiiton and program administrative costs. There are five sponsorship levels: “Friend” is for donations up to $99; “Bronze” signifies gifts of $100 to $499; “Silver” donations are from $500 to $1499; “Gold” sponsors have provided $1500 to $4999 in support; and “Platinum” designates sponsors that have contributed $5000 or more. As a donor, you will be acknowledged on the competition web site unless you wish to remain anonymous. Corporations and organizations will have their logos and a link to their web site featured on the competition web site.

The competition began in 2009 as a local event on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and grew out of a class on e-waste issues taught by UIUC industrial design professor William Bullock. Participants focused on reuse of electronic scrap to make new products that first year. The event became international in 2010 with submission and judging occurring online. This continues currently, with entries including a brief YouTube video of the concept, among other requirements. The competition categories have evolved over time to include prevention as well as reuse, and for 2013, the categories have changed to “Product” and “Non-Product” to make the multidisciplinary nature and whole life-cycle focus of SEI more apparent. See our previous post, “International Sustainable Electronics Competition: New Name, New Categories, New Criteria” for further information on the changes for 2013 and the competition web site for complete rules, requirements, and videos for previous years’ winners. Also, check out the recently finalized list of expert jurors for 2013.

Each year, SEI staff members are amazed and inspired by the interesting and innovative ideas put forth by competition participants. It makes us proud to be part of this unique educational experience, which prompts college students and recent graduates throughout the world–society’s future leaders–to learn about and propose solutions for the environmental and social issues associated with our ubiquitous electronic devices. So consider even a modest $15 donation to show your support for inspiring students to conceive of new, more environmentally responsible ways to design, manufacture, use, and manage electronics. Contact Joy Scrogum (217-333-8948) for more information or see http://www.ewaste.illinois.edu/sponsors.cfm.

Jury Finalized for 2013 International Sustainable Electronics Competition

 The jurors for this year’s International Sustainable Electronics Competition (formerly known as the International E-Waste Design Competition) have been announced. Returning again this year are past participants Bill Olson, Director of the Office of Sustainability and Stewardship for Mobile Devices Business, Motorola, Inc., and Jason Linnell, Executive Director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER). They are joined this year by: UIUC alum and President of HOBI International, Inc., Craig Boswell; competition founder, UIUC Professor of Industrial Design in the School of Art + Design and ISTC Affiliated Faculty Scientist, William Bullock; Executive Director of the Northeast Recycling Council and Program Manager for the State Electronics Challenge, Lynn Rubinstein; and CEO of iFixit and Dozuki, Kyle Wiens. For complete juror bios, see http://www.ewaste.illinois.edu/judges.cfm.

Registration is free and opens September 1, 2013. Participants are asked to explore solutions to remediate the existing e-waste problem, prevent e-waste generation in the future, and foster a more sustainable system for electronic device development, use, and management. Submissions include a project description, brief YouTube video, and bibliography. See the competition Rules for complete details on eligibility, categories, judging criteria, and submission requirements. Cash prizes will be awarded to the top three entries in each of two categories. For more information on participating, incorporating the competition into a class, or sponsoring the competition, contact Joy Scrogum via email or at 217-333-8948.

International Sustainable Electronics Competition: New Name, New Categories, New Criteria

The International E-Waste Design Competition has changed its name, categories, & judging criteria. The competition, now known as the International Sustainable Electronics Competition, is part of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC). It originated in 2009, when it emerged from a class on e-waste issues taught by industrial design Professor William Bullock, an affiliated faculty scientist at ISTC. The competition was focused entirely on reuse of electronic scrap during that first year. What began as a local UIUC event became an international competition in 2010, with submissions being made online by college students and recent graduates from around the world. The competition has evolved a bit each year, and grew to incorporate the entire life cycle of electronics, rather than focusing solely on reuse. Organizers noticed that recent entries seemed to incorporate both prevention of e-waste generation (through design modifications to extend the useful product life cycle of electronic devices) and reuse of electronic scrap, regardless of whether or not they were submitted for the “Prevention” or “Reuse” category. So for 2013, categories have been changed to “Product” and “Non-Product,” with the concepts of prevention and reuse integrated throughout the revised judging criteria. The new name and judging criteria are part of the continuing effort to better focus the competition on ideas for a sustainable system for the design, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life management for electronics. The competition has always been open to students in any discipline, but most entries were from engineering or industrial design students. The new categories will make the multidisciplinary nature of the competition more apparent, as “non-product” entries could more obviously be made by students from other fields.

To learn more about the competition and new categories, visit www.ewaste.illinois.edu. Entries include, among other elements, a brief project description paper and YouTube video summarizing the concept. Expert jurors award cash prizes to the top three projects in each category. Registration is free and will open on September 1, 2013. For more information, contact Joy Scrogum at jscrogum@illinois.edu or 217-333-8948.

Call for Papers: “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design”

Challenges logoSEI’s Professor William Bullock and Joy Scrogum will guest edit a special issue of the journal Challenges, entitled “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design.”  From the issue’s rationale:

“Electronics are at the heart of an economic system that has brought many out of poverty and enhanced quality of life. In Western society in particular, our livelihoods, health, safety, and well being are positively impacted by electronics. However, there is growing evidence that our disposal of electronics is causing irreparable damage to the planet and to human health, as well as fueling social conflict and violence.

While global demand for these modern gadgets is increasing, policy to handle the increased volumes of electronic waste has not kept pace. International policy governing safe transfer, disposal, reclamation, and reuse of electronic waste is nonexistent or woefully lacking. Where laws do exist about exporting and importing hazardous waste, they are routinely circumvented and enforcement is spotty at best. While European Union countries lead the way in responsible recycling of electronic and electrical devices under various EU directives, most industrialized nations do not have such policies. In the U.S., for example, most electronic waste is still discarded in landfills or ground up for scrap.

It is imperative that we consider how green design practices can address the growing electronic waste problem. This special issue is meant to do just that and spur discussions on how electronic products can become greener and more sustainable.”

If you are interested in submitting a paper for this special issue, please send a title and short abstract (about 100 words) to the Challenges Editorial Office at challenges@mdpi.com, indicating the special issue for which it is to be considered. If the proposal is considered appropriate for the issue, you will be asked to submit a full paper. Complete instructions for authors and an online submission form for the completed manuscripts are available on the Challenges web site at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/challenges/special_issues/electronic-waste. The deadline for manuscript submissions is June 1, 2013.

Greening the Gift of Gadgets

It’s the holiday season, and odds are many people are out frantically shopping for last minute gifts, many of which will involve electronics of some sort. If you’re giving the gift of gadgets this year, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, and always, consider–do you or the loved one in mind really NEED the new device, or does an existing device serve the person’s purposes adequately? Will it improve your life in a substantial way, or is this a status symbol? In Western culture in particular, there’s a push to have the latest and greatest gadget. A new version of a device is released and thousands flock to purchase it, even if they barely use half the features on the older version of the device which they already own. There’s a perception that one needs the latest version in order to keep up with new technology, or at least to keep up appearances, and all too often the actual functionality of a device and how it fits a person’s specific situation and needs, is lower on the list of purchasing considerations. Consumers can be fickle, and can suffer from app envy. Stop for a minute and think about this. Watch The Story of Stuff. Then watch The Story of Electronics.

If you still feel compelled to buy, are you able to buy a used version of the device? What about a refurbished version? Many electronics retailers offer refurbished versions of devices for slightly lower prices, which operate just as well as a brand new device. My refurbished wireless router at home is a fine example of the reliability of such items. It’s always desirable to see products reused as much as possible before recycling. Any way in which the product lifecycle can be extended is positive in terms of environmental impacts.See this HowStuffWorks article on How Refurbished Electronics Work.

If for whatever reason a used or refurbished version isn’t an option, take some time to consider the environmental ratings of the products and brands you’re considering. Helpful consumer guides include the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, the latest version of which was just released in November 2012. , and the Good Guide (although currently, the Good Guide only ranks cell phones according to environmental, social, and health criteria). Always look for ENERGY STAR rated devices which will operate more efficiently. Such devices will have the ENERGY STAR logo on them, and you can do some research ahead of time on the program’s web site. Determine whether or not the device you’re interested in is EPEAT registered. EPEAT stands for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, and involves standards for categorizing electronic products at various levels based upon a variety of environmental considerations. The category standards for a given device category are developed with the input of various stakeholders, including those involved in electronics development and purchasing, as well as representatives from governments, environmental advocacy organizations and academia. Contrary to common misconception, EPEAT is a voluntary registry, not a certification in which a third-party issues a product its stamp of approval, as evidenced by Apple’s voluntary decision earlier in the year to remove certain products from the registry, and subsequently voluntarily choose to add them back after public outcry over this decision and criticism related to designs for certain products that made them more difficult to disassemble and/or recycle. See http://news.cnet.com/8301-13579_3-57472035-37/apple-reverses-course-re-ups-with-epeat-green-standard/ for more on that. Even so, if a product meets EPEAT standards, you can feel confident that its environmental impact has been carefully considered throughout its lifecycle. See this infographic for more on the environmental benefits of EPEAT rated products. Raise Hope for Congo ranks companies on their efforts towards using and investing in conflict-free minerals. (See the “Conflict Minerals” post category of this blog for more information on what conflict minerals are and why they’re important.)

Once you’ve dutifully done that homework, you should be ready to buy, right? Well, if you’re in the U.S., maybe you should further consider whether or not your state has electronics product legislation on the books. See the State & Local page of the SEI web site Law & Policy section to find out and have a summary of the type of law your state has, the devices covered, and a link to the full text of the legislation. Why does this matter? Well, some states (like Illinois, for example) require manufacturers to register or submit recycling plans with a state agency prior to being allowed to sell their products within that state. It’s all part of efforts to ensure that certain electronic devices don’t end up in landfills and that manufacturers are supporting the end-of-life management of their own products (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_producer_responsibility). As a recent article in a National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) newsletter pointed out, some brands are not compliant with state laws. You might want to buy a certain brand because of great holiday deals being offered–but maybe those products aren’t even supposed to be sold in your state! It’s worth checking the NCER resources related to this.

You’ve waded through all these environmental considerations and are feeling good about your choices. The new gadget is wrapped and ready for giving. But then you remember–what should your loved one do with their old device? There are many different options, and what is available to you will depend on your location. A good place to start is the SEI fact sheet on Electronics Take-Back and Donation Programs. A quick way to check for options in your area is to visit the Earth911 web site. And you can always contact your county or municipal recycling coordinator–he or she will be able to tell you whether or not there are collection events offered in your area, and which local retailers and recyclers accept electronics for recycling.

Now for extra points—how environmentally friendly was the gift wrap you used? 🙂

Happy holidays from SEI!

GreenBiz Series on Conflict Minerals Continues

The latest entry in the GreenBiz.com series on conflict minerals has been published, entitled “Industry, government team up for conflict-free mineral markets.” The series is being written by Patricia Jurewicz, the Director for the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN). RSN is a project of As You Sow, a nongovernmental organization that  “promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies.” In this latest installment, Jurewicz highlights industry efforts to trace and maintain conflict-free supply chains, while also contributing positively to Congolese communities.

The series began in late August, 2012, and is a response to the recent U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) vote to adopt Section 1502, a provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. That rule requires manufacturers to trace their supply chains and disclose whether or not the tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold used in their products come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or an adjoining country. For more information on this rule and links to the previous installments in the GreenBiz series, see my previous post on the series.