Mining is not just for precious metals and stones: all metal that is not recycled, is extracted from the Earth. So are minerals such as cobalt, key element of lithium batteries that power our smartphone and laptop batteries, and extracted at the cost of human lives. The damage caused by mines is mostly out of the public eye, but it is extensive:
- Contamination of ground and surface water from arsenic, sulfuric acid and mercury, as well as heavy metals (lead and cadmium), but even the simple runoff of rock debris has devastating effects on the local vegetation.
- Impact on the biodiversity is far greater than the area of the mine itself, due to loss of habitat, poisoning, noise, acidification, temperature modification… It’s enough for micro-organisms in the water to be killed by pollution, for an entire ecosystem to collapse. Closure of a mine is no guarantee of a return of biodiversity.
- Cobalt is a key mineral for making the lithium-ion batteries that power our smartphones (5-10g cobalt), laptops (30g) and electric cars (up to 15kg). While demand is soaring due to these devices booming, 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from mines in Congo, where it is hand-dug by workers (including children) with no health or safety precautions, for $2-3 on a good day. Injury and death are frequent, and whole communities are exposed to high levels of toxic metals due to mine activity, as a result developing serious diseases. More in this thorough investigation by the Washington Post.
- Everyday metals: Opt for recycled metals, for instance recycled aluminium foil, which is made using only 5% of the energy required for making it from raw material, with no mining involved (More on this in Plastic and Other Packaging). Metal recycling is profitable and therefore, generally very well organized, so it’s just a question of identifying brands that are committed to using recycled metals.
- Cobalt: Hold on to your phone and/or laptop for as long as you possibly can, rather than buying the latest model every year. Thy are useful (for some of us, indispensable) items that replace a whole suite of other items and publications, so they do reduce waste by their very nature, but not if they’re treated as fashion items to be disposed of after a short while.
Far worse offenders are electric cars, each of which requires several thousand times the amount of cobalt in our devices — and yet the only alternative at present is returning to petrol-fueled vehicles. There is no perfect solution here, at least until a battery is developed that does not require such mining; meanwhile we can increasingly demand accountability from companies for their entire supply chain.