Thursday, July 12, 2012

Blood on Our Hands

Yesterday I had to be in the "big city," which meant I would be near a Best Buy store.  On their website, Best Buy advertises that they will take in old electronics for recycling.  The variety amazed me:  televisions, computers, cell phones, game systems, pedometers, even household appliances.  I had several items that I had been saving over the years for just such an opportunity, so I loaded up my trunk and headed out of town.  The process was pretty simple, with bins right at the door for the smaller items, such as power cords.  For the old desktop and printer, I had to go to customer service and sign a document stating I was turning the items in to be recycled and that I would not come back looking for the items.  (I could see a misunderstanding occurring with someone thinking they dropped off a computer for repairs only to learn it had been recycled!)

Recycling those items was important to me for a couple of reasons, but I did have mixed feelings about it.  One thing of which I was painfully aware was that all the plastic would not likely be recycled - plus the pollution, environmental devastation, etc. that occurred due to the manufacture of the products would not go away.  Although I was glad to know that at least some of the components would not go to landfill, there is also a dark side to recycling electronics as most are shipped overseas (but that is another story).  I also know about the world conflict caused by many of the minerals used in electronics and was glad that reusing the minerals might alleviate some of the problem.

My biggest concern about electronics is what are called "blood" or "conflict" minerals.  The main minerals in this group are cassiterite, wolframite, columbite-tantalite (aka coltan), and gold.  Tin and tungsten are also considered conflict minerals.    Except for the gold and tin, most of us have probably never heard of these minerals, but they are very important for our modern, Western lifestyle.  These minerals are used in devices such as cell phones, laptops, and MP3 players.  

The problem is that most of the minerals are illegally obtained from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a war-torn area where the monies finance brutal militias.  In an attempt to restrict the flow of illegal minerals, Congress has passed laws such as the Congo Conflict Materials Act of 2009 and the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act which require that firms verify the minerals they use in manufacturing are not obtained from the DRC or neighboring countries.  Monitoring this has proved difficult and the electronics industry has actively sought more lenient regulations, spending about $2 million on lobbying.  

Most Americans are not aware of the brutal Second Congo War.  This war, involving eight African nations and 25 armed groups, is the deadliest conflict since World War II, with over five million deaths.  Although the war officially ended in 2003, it continues to rage, taking as many as 45,000 lives per month due to famine and disease, as well as violence.  Almost half of the deceased are young children.  Much of the conflict is fueled by the quest for blood minerals.

This war is especially devastating to women and children.  Soldiers use rape as a weapon of war because raping a woman means destroying the social fabric of a community.  48 women are raped each hour in the DRC.  Estimates put the total number of women raped anywhere between 300,000 and 1.5 million.  According to The Guardian, approximately 12% of Congolese women have been raped at least once. The sheer number of rapes have led some to call it a "war on women."  

Children are also suffering from the conflict and from the quest for the conflict minerals.  Children as young as 10 are often forced or coerced into the mines, working under slave-like conditions in dark and dangerous tunnels, working shifts as long as 48-hours.  Don't forget, conflict minerals are found in gaming systems such as Play Station and XBox, which are fixtures in the lives of most American children.  One website points out the hypocrisy with a quote by former British Member of Parliament, Oona King: "Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms."

In addition to the cost inflicted on humans, mining conflict minerals is also devastating to the environment.  Mining pollutes water sources and damages land that could be used for agriculture.  In an extremely impoverished nation, lack of drinking water or healthy soil causes even more deaths.  Fragile ecosystems are also damaged by the mining.  

The trailer for the film "Blood in the Mobile" offers a stark contrast between the dirty and dangerous reality of the mines and the slick, clean marketing of cell phones (unfortunately this film is only available in Europe):

The blood is on our hands as we continue to demand better and faster technology.  No longer satisfied with the latest version of a cell phone or computer, we quickly trade in our older models whenever our contract is up and we're eligible for a "free" phone - or sooner if we're willing to pay the financial price.  Question is, do we understand the ultimate price? 

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