Splish Splash, the IP Ratings Bath

Sitting poolside this summer, the electronics never seem to be far from hand. Whether it’s a Bluetooth speaker you have sitting out to listen to some tunes, a phone chilling out next to the cold beverage you’re sipping on, or a wrist watch that you forgot to take off before that really impressive cannonball, your devices have a good chance of encountering liquids.

Some of you may be less concerned about this than others as you own devices that are promoted as being water resistant, so let me just start out by saying that water resistant does not mean waterproof.

Companies are trying to make electronics more water resilient since so many of them end up going for a swim. In testing their devices, they assign them IP ratings which are good for letting consumers know just how dust and water resistant your device can be. The first digit following IP gives a rating for dust or other solid objects on a 0-6 scale, and the second digit following IP gives a rating for the device’s resistance to water on a 0-8 scale. The higher the numbers, the greater the level of resistance. For example, a device that is labeled IP67, like Samsung’s Galaxy S5 or the iPhone 7, has a dust resistance of 6 which is the highest rating, meaning it is essentially as dust resistant as a device can be; and a water rating of 7 which means that the device has been lab tested to survive a temporary immersion (30 minutes or less) in less than 1 meter of water.

(Click here for more information on what your device’s IP rating covers.)

So, your phone’s immersion safe. Sounds great, right? Let’s take pictures underwater with it.

Mmm, no, not so much.

Even smartphones with the highest rating, IP68, like the Galaxy S7 , can still manage to drown.

The problem with IP ratings is that they only prove that they’ve passed the required tests in a controlled lab; real world conditions will vary. Perhaps the tests were performed for the IP ratings were done with a gradual submersion opposed to a sudden dunk; using fresh water rather than damaging salt or chlorine; or using static water rather than running water; or in lukewarm water versus a hot tub or frozen lake. There is such a wide array of variables that impact the water resistance of a device that your safest bet is to keep it away from liquids as much as possible.

Companies like Apple, Samsung, and Sony have lots of caveats for what should and shouldn’t be done with their devices regarding their interaction with liquids such as: not using the device while submerged, letting the device dry out for a few hours afterwards, and not opening the device when it’s wet as it can damage the adhesives that help give it its water-resistant rating.

Most device warranties, even those with higher IP ratings, do not include liquid damage due to the high levels of unpredictable conditions that can affect them, including water resistant components that can wear out gradually over time. And if you think you can try and take it in to see if you can get it replaced after its taken a dunk and dried out, think again. A good portion of smartphones have water damage indicator stickers inside the device and on batteries that will change colors when exposed to liquids or water vapor, a red flag to anyone opening your device for repair.

Due to the nature of phones, it seems unlikely that they will ever be truly waterproof, needing open areas for ports, picking up sound vibrations, and maintaining equal pressure with the surrounding atmosphere, but companies are making an effort to keep liquids from destroying them. And as liquid damage is the second most common way of destroying a smartphone, I think it’s a device safety net that we all can appreciate.

Conflict Minerals: What’s Being Done?

This post continues the discussion of conflict minerals which began in my previous post, “Defining Conflict Minerals.”

In a just and simple world, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would thrive off possessing such a rich variety of natural resources. Unfortunately, this is not the case and valuable minerals are used to finance conflict and destabilize the DRC. Even though it has taken a bit too long, the rest of the world has begun to think about ways to eliminate conflict minerals from the global supply chain. Governments have begun to pass legislation with the intent to foster responsible sourcing. Additionally, there are industry associations focused on helping manufacturers identify conflict-free sources for minerals and non-profit organizations that shine the spotlight on corporate use of conflict minerals and raise awareness of relevant issues among consumers. Fortunately, the world wide supply chain is responding to external pressures and progress is being made in the war on conflict minerals.

In 2010, the heavily publicized Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed. Dodd-Frank is primarily known for bringing about significant changes in financial regulation. However, Section 1502 of the act addresses the trade and use of conflict materials and hopes to make the corporate supply chain more transparent. This legislation introduced requirements for independent third party supply chain traceability audits, and all publicly traded companies must report their mineral sourcing to the public and the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission. More than 70 percent of smelters that produce the 3Ts (tin, tantalum, tungsten) and gold have now passed conflict-free audits. In turn, as these audits are pushed down supply lines, the new regulations will even impact private and foreign companies that are not directly regulated by the SEC. For example, corporations now feel the pressure to only source certified conflict free minerals, and mining operations are increasingly separating themselves from local militia groups. American efforts have helped inspire other governments to pursue similar actions and the EU passed its own conflict minerals regulations a little over a month ago. Like Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank, it aims to improve supply chain diligence. However, the EU legislation does differ in a few ways and applies to minerals that are sourced in regions outside of the DRC as well. The European regulation further differs in that it applies to a more narrowly defined set of companies and fewer downstream purchasers are covered under it.

While current regulations in the arena of conflict minerals are noble in intent, they have not been implemented free of criticism. As there is a large trend in governments slashing budgets, certain regulations that are perceived to be financially burdensome are being targeted. Accordingly, the cost of ensuring compliance with Dodd-Frank 1502 has been heavily scrutinized. This regulation can financially justify itself though. Costs to implement the act have dropped significantly as many innovations and tools are available to issuers and suppliers at no cost. Moreover, many corporations contribute to an audit fund that reduces some of the cost of audits to smelters. Furthermore, these efforts support U.S. national security concerns as they stabilize the region and remove power from warlords. Other arguments surrounding this part of Dodd-Frank revolve around closing existing loopholes. Some parts of Section 1502 are hard to interpret and have resulted in legal grey areas. Companies are required to “conduct a reasonable country of origin inquiry”–what counts as “reasonable” is open to interpretation. As global supply chains are increasingly complex, legislation needs to acknowledge this and make sure that companies investigate to the appropriate extent. As the extent is not clearly defined, companies have some wiggle room in disputing civil penalties.

Dodd-Frank has been a good start in the fight against conflict minerals, but more work needs to be done. Governments around the world need to help fund the construction of infrastructure and occupational training in the DRC’s mining regions. The mining sector has been hit hard by the conflict-free transition and many people’s livelihood no longer exists. Accurately tracing the source of conflict minerals in very important, but in order for it to have meaning it has to be followed by efforts to reduce or eliminate their usage. Under Dodd-Frank companies do not have self-auditing power, but the third parties that audit them are not monitored by a strict set of standards. In further defining what rigors smelters and other areas of the supply chain must undergo to show that they are conflict free, one common metric should be used to accurately access compliance.

Current regulation may still need to go farther, but fortunately there are industry associations and non-governmental organizations committed to the fight against conflict mines. See for example the Conflict Free Sourcing Initiative, Responsible Sourcing Network, and Raise Hope for Congo. Some efforts focus on promoting conflict-free mines in the Eastern DRC region. Some companies have completely stopped sourcing from the region, but this has harmed many miners that are not involved with the warlords. In response, efforts have been made to identify and promote responsibly sourced minerals from the DRC. Other organizations focus on tabulating the progress specific large companies have made on responsibly sourcing conflict minerals. For example see the Enough Project/Raise Hope for Congo Conflict Minerals Company Rankings at http://www.raisehopeforcongo.org/content/conflict-minerals-company-rankings. Some companies are making much greater efforts than others. For instance, Intel was the first company to publicly commit to making a fully conflict-free product with a deadline. On the other end of the spectrum, Nintendo has made no known efforts to trace or audit its supply chain. Unfortunately, the United States is considering abandoning the current regulations on conflict minerals that it presently has in place. This means that activist groups may play an increasingly vital role in informing the public and ensuring responsible sourcing among companies. Raise Hope for Congo conveniently provides a link that suggests ways you can take action.

Of course, another great way to help decrease the demand for conflict minerals is by either repairing or donating the technology that you possess. If you cut down on the amount of tech that you buy, then you will be cutting down on the vast array of minerals that are mined to produce it.

Apple Dreams in Green

In recent news, Apple released their annual Environmental Responsibility report which highlights the things that the corporation is doing to be more “green” such as encouraging renewable energy throughout the manufacturing process and trying to create sustainable practices for the paper used in their product packaging. But perhaps the most notable mention that came from this report was the declaration that one day it would end its reliance on mining and make its products solely from recycled materials or renewable resources. This is certainly a lofty goal for Apple and one worth pursuing even if they’re not sure how to go about it or when they’ll be able to achieve it.

Apple has been dubbed one of the most environmentally friendly technology companies in the world according to Greenpeace’s Clean Energy Index, leading the way among other tech industry giants like Google and Facebook. Apple has made significant progress in being environmentally conscientious from where it was several years ago and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. However, as they continue to seek ways to benefit the environment, they do so in pushing forward in developing new technologies rather than seeking to extend the life of existing ones.

Lifespans for electronics in the industry – as a whole – are dropping; even Apple places the iPhone’s estimated lifespan at around 3 years; not terribly impressive considering its cost. Two elements which play largely into determining how long a device can be considered relevant and useful are planned obsolescence and consumerism. Planned obsolescence, where devices are designed to fail at some point so that new devices can be purchased, can be done through a variety of means such as: limiting warranty periods, ending software upgrades and product support, hardware decisions, and discontinuing the availability of repair parts.

For all of Apple’s green efforts, they clearly do not want individuals working on repairing and extending the life of their products, even going so far as to shred its old products so that salvageable parts are not resold; a method that is used to protect its brand by preventing secondhand parts from flooding the market. While the shredded remains of iPhones are sifted apart and recycled to the best of Apple’s ability, the fact remains that those components could have been put to better use in keeping another device from landing in the shredder itself.

Image of shredded electronic devices
Shredded electronic devices from a Canadian E-waste Recycling Facility (no affiliation with Apple or this article). Photo from iFixit.org. Click the image to read more.

Consumerism is the other side of the technology lifespan coin for those individuals who want to have the latest and greatest devices. As a culture, we’re far more willing to go out and purchase something new rather than attempt to repair it and the tech industry knows this and promotes it. Apple, in showing off their going green endeavors, are either consciously or unconsciously coaxing consumers into feeling less guilt about buying new models each year. Consumers enjoy feeling that their purchase is created in an environmentally friendly way and that the devices will be recycled at the end of their lifecycle, but supporting Apple’s sustainable practices is negated by buying a brand-new phone each year when the old one worked just fine. In fact, studies have been done that show the availability of recycling as an option can lead to an increase in resource usage.

While recycling is a good alternative to throwing things away, prolonging the useful life of a product is far better. There’s a reason that Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is presented in that order.

Defining Conflict Minerals

images of coltan, cassiterite, gold ore, and wolframite
Photo by Rob Lavinsky. iRocks.com –CC-BY-SA-3.0

One hallmark of modern society is that technology has facilitated communication that was previously impossible due to insurmountable distances. Accordingly, cell phones play a vital role in the majority of Americans’ lives. For example, in a recent poll Time magazine found that a whopping 84% of Americans could not even last a day without their cell phones. The capacity of cell phones has increased rapidly over the past decade and smartphones have emerged to take a dominant role within the market. While smart phones may be user friendly, the supply chain that they are created from is not so simple. Numerous elements are used in smart phone manufacture and 70 of the 83 nonradioactive elements can be found within them. These elements come from all corners of the world and are representative of the global supply chain that is common in the production process. Unfortunately, some of these elements are purchased from unscrupulous warlords that use profits to further human suffering.

Extracting resources from conflict zones for the purpose of fueling war related activities has a long and tragic history. A commonly cited example in the minds of many people was portrayed in the movie Blood Diamond. This movie portrayed how profits from selling conflict diamonds contributed to civil unrest in Sierra Leone. The term “conflict commodity” actually emerged in the late 1990s in reference to diamonds that were financing strife in Angola and Sierra Leone. Presently, the term “conflict mineral” is often used and describes minerals that fund militia groups and the extremely brutal warfare that they engage in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict minerals extracted from the DRC are widely used in modern technological devices and the term itself typicallys refers to Tantalum, Tin, Tungsten, and Gold.

Conflict minerals in the DRC are largely located in remote mines found in the eastern regions of the country. The DRC has long suffered from a low human development index and rampant corruption. The government is based in the Western city of Kinshasa and its control over the country is often tenuous at best. Moreover, conflict has ravaged the country for the past 20 years and the eastern mining region is largely under control of warlords. Various rebel groups contest over the valuable resources and employ brutal tactics. Oftentimes, child soldiers and slave labor is used in order to achieve their aims. The welfare of people is given no quarter by these local militias and they are only concerned about selling minerals at a maximum profit, so that they can improve their military arsenal and propagate warfare. Sadly, the fierce fighting in the DRC has taken six million lives since 1996 and an alarming number of women have been raped during this period as well.

Now that we know the abysmal conditions under which these minerals are mined, it is important to understand how they make it into the global supply chain. The first step involves smuggling freshly mined minerals out of the DRC. The chaotic history of the region has resulted in the formation of a well-organized and deeply entrenched smuggling network. In fact, a 2014 UN report estimated that a staggering 98% of gold produced in the country was smuggled out. All conflict materials are smuggled out of the DRC at high rates and into neighboring African countries. In places like Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya conflict minerals are mixed with minerals from more legitimate sources and refined. From there these refined minerals are sold to smelters around the world, where they are prepared to be used in the manufacture process. It is certainly unfortunate that materials used to finance such awful causes have the potential to make it into our supply chain. However, as consumers we are not helpless in this matter. There are agencies and companies that try to manage the source of materials that they use in manufacture. Furthermore, recent government regulations both domestically and abroad target how conflict minerals are sourced and are aimed at eliminating their usage. In my next post I will address these developments.