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E-Device Metals Sourcing Bigger Problem Than Just Conflict Minerals

The issues around the use of metals in e-devices is more complicated than just the matter of conflict minerals. A recent report suggests devices might be more sustainable if they used more plastics and less metals.

The 2018 paper Creating sustainable smartphones: Scaling up best practice to achieve SDG 12 offers this insight. "The current trend in smartphone body design is towards the use of high-grade materials instead of once commonly-used, plastics. That creates an increased demand for metals such as aluminium, stainless steel or even titanium. In addition, specialty ceramics and toughened glass are increasingly being used. As verified almost two decades ago, PC/ABS [Polycarbonate/Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene] and PP [Polypropylene] shells cause up to ten times lower climate impacts compared to aluminium or titanium mainly due to the differences in energy consumption in making these materials. Newer generations of smartphones cause greater environmental impacts due to larger screens and more advanced chips."

The report continues, "Smartphones contain a wide variety of materials, often speciality metals. Of the 17 rare earth metals, 16 are included in smartphones and none are currently recovered...Mining of any raw material causes pollution and habitat destruction and often involves poor working conditions. Key environmental challenges are often related to large-scale water consumption (for ore processing) and pollution (long-term leakage of toxic leachate from slag), landscape damage and the loss of biodiversity caused by open pit mining and spoil dumping...Transporting raw materials to locations where they are processed, and then to places where smartphones are manufactured, causes further environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions."


Apple finally addressed the issue in its Supplier Responsibility 2014 Progress Report. "A large percentage of the world’s tin — including tin in Apple products — comes from Bangka and Belitung Islands, Indonesia. After learning that some of the tin may contribute to environmental damage or pose risks to miners, Apple went to Indonesia to investigate and visited with key stakeholders, including officials from the government, NGOs, and the smelters. We have since worked with the EICC and IDH Sustainable Trade Initiative to develop the Indonesian Tin Working Group, whose goal is to explore how its members can help resolve the environmental and social challenges of tin mining on Bangka and Belitung Islands while also supporting the economic benefits of a robust mining trade. We will continue to work with the Indonesian Tin Working Group and our regional partners to address these concerns."

It's not clear at this time how much progress has been made actually getting more sustainable tin into Apple products.


We've been following the issue of conflict minerals in our e-devices for more than five years. Our readers will know that cassiterite, the mineral ore form of tin, is a conflict mineral when mined in Central Africa. It turns out that much more tin - over a third of the world's consumption - is mined in Indonesia. Tin extraction there is not driven by conflict, but is still a brutal business for the miners and takes a toll on the environment.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported in August 2012 on one of Indonesia's major mining locations. "..thousands of Indonesians...wield pickaxes and buckets each day on Bangka Island, extracting the tin that becomes the solder that binds components in the world’s tablet computers, smartphones, and other electronics. Police figures show Bangka miners died in average of almost one a week last year, more than double the rate from 2010. There is good reason to believe it’s getting worse. At the end of July, five Bangka miners were killed beneath another mudslide."

The report makes the connect to our devices clear. "The trail from the dangerous mines to the leading names in electronics, including Foxconn Technology Group (HNHPF), the biggest manufacturer for Apple (AAPL) and others, is clear. Shenmao Technology and Chernan Metal Industrial—two of the top solder makers in Asia, both suppliers to Foxconn—say they buy 100 percent of their tin from Indonesia. Shenmao estimates it’s the dominant supplier of solder to China, the cradle of electronics manufacturing, and accounts for 16 percent of the global market. Chernan says other clients have included Sony (SNE), Panasonic (PC), Samsung Electronics, and LG Electronics. Several other solder makers declined to discuss their tin sourcing."