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.

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Local (Champaign-Urbana) Repair Guide

We know that even “do-it-together” repair can be intimidating for some people, or maybe you just don’t have the time in your busy schedule currently to come in and participate in the repair of your device. We understand, but want you to still consider repair before replacement of your device. Also, there are times when a client comes in for assistance and we find that the problem with their device is beyond our abilities at the Illini Gadget Garage, but we still believe the item in question can be repaired. For these types of instances, we have composed a list of local repair shops, and posted it on our website under the “Repair” tab. You can either access a spreadsheet that list addresses, contact information, hours, and the types of devices serviced, or a map that shows their physical locations.

Be aware that you will not find chains like Best Buy or Dick Van Dyke listed. This is because they mainly specialize in servicing products that were bought on their premises–plus we know you’re probably already aware of those options for service. If your merchandise is currently covered by a warranty policy, we fully encourage you to take it the location from where it was purchased. We just want you to know that the main focus of the resources we provide is to guide you to shops that specialize in repair no matter where or how long ago an item was purchased.

We also want to be clear–the Illini Gadget Garage does NOT endorse any of the listed businesses. This list is provided for information purposes only, to help those who come to us for assistance to find additional services they require. We do not refer clients to specific businesses; we merely provide the names of companies that can service the device in question. The decision as to which, if any, of the local shops you go to, is yours as a consumer.

What if your device can’t be repaired? Don’t worry–we can help you with that too. Check out our “Recycle” page at http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/recycle/. That page includes a link to the Champaign County Electronics Recycling guide, which lists local electronics recyclers, and provides links to the Illinois EPA Service Locator page and other relevant information on the electronics landfill ban in Illinois.

Have other questions? Have a suggestion for a local repair shop to add to our list? Send us a note at illinigadgetgarage@gmail.com.

Pop Ups!

Are you interested in learning about how to become a more empowered consumer and are you interested in technology? Would you like to learn tinkering skills that will serve you well throughout life?  If so, the Illini Gadget Garage is looking to mobilize its services and can come directly to you. Host a pop-up clinic–we can tailor our demonstrations and assistance to the needs of your organization.  At a pop-up clinic we can troubleshoot cell phone repair, laptop teardowns, solve software issues, or demonstrate how to solve a wide array of other issues. There is no need to worry about having the right tools or equipment, we are well stocked and all you need to do is show up.

In addition, we are open to helping all groups of people and you need not feel like you have to have prior experience with sustainability related topics. For example, on March 14th we set up a pop-up during Teenspace, an after school program for local middle and high school students. Our interactions with the adolescents helped foster a fun learning experience. Students not only worked with tools, but also learned about the accessibility of technology and the right to repair. Some students even stated that the experience made them, “want to work with technology one day.” There are many people around campus who have yet to decide on a career path and as technology is an emergent field, someone may find that they are naturally inclined towards it.

Our pop-up clinic service is free for on-campus entities thanks to funding from the Student Sustainability Committee.

Fill out the “Host a Pop-Up Clinic” online form to indicate your interest and to provide some basic information about your situation. We’ll be in touch for scheduling!

Right to Repair and the Tech Industry

How would you feel about passing legislation that increases the lifespan of your tech devices, reduces e-Waste, and creates American jobs? Numerous states across the country have such legislation on the table in the form of Right to Repair bills. Success in forcing automotive manufacturers to provide repair information to independent shops has emboldened consumer advocates and politicians to propose similar laws in regards to the electronic hardware and software found in modern technological gadgets. Likewise, if just one state passes a Right to Repair law in this new arena, then a domino effect will likely occur in the rest of the country. Manufacturers will likely see the writing on the wall and will react proactively to preempt nationwide legislation, as they did after the Massachusetts automotive bill was passed.

Big business is usually hesitant to loosen their stranglehold on an industry, unless they are forced to do so.  From their perspective, this makes sense as tighter control strongly correlates with higher profits. For example, Apple is notorious for making items that are difficult and expensive to repair. To repair one of their products, you need special screwdrivers that cannot be found in stores. Additionally, they do not release repair information to the public and it is sometimes prohibitively expensive to repair an item at the Apple Store. Specifically, their repair service for an iPod shuffle is more expensive than purchasing a new iPod.[1] These measures go against the best interests of the consumer. If companies like Apple were forced to make repair parts, tools, and information available to consumers and small repair shops, then the “little guy” would assuredly benefit. Apple would no longer be able to charge exorbitant rates for repair, as small businesses and do-it-yourselfers would have the means to cheaply fix electronic devices. After all, the very concept of ownership should mean that the manufacturer can no longer dictate how an item is used once it is purchased by a consumer.[1]

Besides the obvious impact on our wallets, extending the lifespan of our tech devices has numerous other positive implications as well. For starters, most tech devices are manufactured using a wide array of materials. Smartphones alone contain roughly 50 periodic table elements used in their manufacture.[2] Many of these elements are not recoverable by recycling and as we can all surmise, whenever anything is mined and or used in manufacturing, there are potential negative impacts on humans and the environment–even if it’s just the energy or water used in processing. Thus, it is important to emphasize repairing and reuse over recycling, to maximize resource efficiency and minimize negative impacts. Optimally people will get their products fixed and keep using them. If this is not the case, it is vital that an item gets repaired if possible and reused by either being sold, donated, or given away. Oftentimes, items are not re-purposed because tech companies prevent repairs. This is one type of planned obsolescence, and this phenomenon is both overly pervasive and easily preventable in so many areas. Even self-cleaning litter boxes contain chips within their cleaning solution cartridges that will no longer work once the cartridge has been used more than a factory predetermined number of times. The owner is forced to purchase a new cartridge, even if they have the know-how to take it apart and refill it, because it is programmed not to work after that predetermined number of uses.[3]

A crucial side effect of enabling more people to repair items is the creation of domestic jobs. We live in a global economy, and when manufacturer-imposed limits make it impractical to fix technological devices in the United States, these items are shipped to India or China.[4] These items are repaired abroad and value that could be created for the U.S. economy is literally shipped overseas. Moreover, the U.S. repair sector makes up as much as 4% of our GDP and is composed of mostly small operations that have the potential to create jobs at a local level.[4] By catering to large tech companies and turning monopolistic inclinations into law, it can readily be seen that the American economy and small business is damaged in return. After all, even though so much information has been denied, thousands of cell phone repair businesses and organizations have still managed to thrive. If they were given proper diagnostic access and repair equipment, their benefit to society would grow to even greater heights.

As with any newly proposed policy, the Right to Repair movement has garnered some criticism and opponents. Some parties emphasize the difficulty and danger  they believe to be inherent in electronics repair, claiming that do-it-yourselfers shouldn’t attempt to repair any sort of electronic device. This argument is flawed for many reasons. Most people are very capable of following directions and that is the most vital thing in most modern electronics repair. Furthermore, if companies are concerned with the safety of their products, then they should include information about how to identify and replace hazardous components.[2] Lastly, the Right to Repair movement recognizes that some forms of technology may be overly difficult for most people to repair. In these circumstances, the movement simply wishes to provide trained independent technicians with the appropriate information that will enable them to do their job. After all, in the age of mass information, it will quickly become obvious to someone doing Internet research which items can be repaired by ambitious amateurs and which ones require professional attention.

Currently, politicians across the country have recognized the strength of the arguments behind the Right to Repair and have come out in support of it. One of the strongest ongoing efforts is in Nebraska. Republican state senator Lydia Brasch has been one of the biggest proponents of digital right-to-repair law. Her fight started when her family’s $300,000 dollar combine broke down and it took a day to bring in an authorized technician with the necessary diagnostic equipment.[5] In critical times of harvest, farmers literally cannot afford to be without equipment that they are so heavily invested in. When major tech companies heard about Brasch’s bill, they praised her efforts and said that they were fine with her regulating the tractor business. They were under the impression that her efforts would be limited to farm equipment. However, they were sorely mistaken and Brasch was quoted as saying, “People here…we try to do the right thing.”[5]  In her opinion, it is not moral to grant special provisions to tech companies just because they have powerful lobbies. Presently, numerous states around the country have taken up the torch and support has arisen from diverse ideological bases. Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Wyoming have all proposed some form of digital right to repair legislation.

[1]We Have the Right to Repair Everything We Own.IFIXITORG. Web. 14 March. 2017.

[2]  Koebler, Jason. “How to Fix Everything.Motherboard. Vice, 24 November. 2015. Web. 16 March. 2017.

[3] Perkins, Bart. “Fight for your right to repair.” Computerworld. IDG Communications, 23 November 2015. Web. 16 March. 2017.

[4] Doctorow, Cory. “Three states considering “right to repair” laws that would decriminalize fixing your stuff.Boingboing. 23 January. 2017. Web. 21 March. 2017.

[5] Bray, Hiawatha. “You gotta fight for the right to repair your digital devices.The Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners, 23 February. 2017 Web. 22 March. 2017

Tinkering Teens

This past Tuesday, two staff members had the pleasure of going to the Champaign Public Library and setting up a fun Pop-Up during Teenspace, an after-school programming for middle and high schoolers.  The intention behind this Pop-Up was to show local teens how fun tinkering is, and in turn, how easy it is to repair your own tech with the right tools and resources.  With the intention of disassembling and putting them back together with the teens, we brought in two Dell Venue 8 tablets, one iPad, one MacBook Pro, and one Windows Surface.  We had our usual Pop-Up kit in-tow, including our iFixIt Toolkits, Magnetic Project Mats, and some guitar picks.  When the kids came in, we paired two or three teens with one device.  Using tear-down guides from iFixIt.com, they gradually took apart and put together the devices.

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Unscrewing the motherboard off a Dell Venue 8.

Most of the teens were ecstatic about “breaking apart” the devices, but were hesitant on what tools to use.  There were a few who let us know how easy it would be to simply stab the pieces out of the device, or that they would be willing to jump on the device in order to bypass the tricky opening.

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Working on a Dell Venue 8.

The best part about the event was seeing the teens realize that opening up an intimidating device was not only easy, but a lot of fun!  They dismantled the devices collaboratively, some unscrewing, while the others told them where and why they should unscrew.  Others applied circuitry basics learned at school in identifying parts and let their knowledge guide them in disassembly.

Teens working on an iPad.
Teens working on an iPad.

The teens were utilizing the tear-down guides, but all of the tinkering was led, and done, by them.  The IGG staff stepped in when they needed help with stripped screws or especially frustrating ribbons, but the majority of work was youth-led.  While the teens worked, they asked two main questions, “Why is this so hard to open?” and “Why can’t I just use one bit to get all the screws out?”  These questions started conversations that focused on usability and accessibility of technology and hardware, their right to repair, and the lifespan of technology.  We talked about patented screws (check out our blog post on the history of Right to Repair), what happens when phones or other personal devices get recycled or thrown away, and how they can help the environment by fixing their devices instead of getting new ones or upgrading.  The teens were pushing their boundaries on how they interpreted and reacted to technology, and analyzed how they used their devices and what happened to their devices when they were done with them.  This was all due to simply opening and exploring the components of devices.  It’s pretty amazing what individuals discover, and what questions are asked, once they get involved with how their device works.

Interested in opening up your own devices? Want to tear down the devices that the teens worked on? Or looking to host a similar Pop-Up with your organization?

We want to hear from you! Send us an email or follow us on Facebook to connect with our staff!

Splash! When Liquid Meets Laptop.

coffee spill
Coffee Spill

‘Tis the season when the weather starts to turn warmer and people find themselves craving iced tea and lemonade or perhaps the increased necessity of caffeine to fuel us through the workday (or school day) as deadlines approach. Whatever the reason, we frequently find ourselves with a beverage in hand as we interact with our personal electronics, so what do you do when… WHOOPS… happens?

*Sirens in the distance*

Liquid spills are a gamble of time and no small portion of luck. When it happens, you’ll want to react as quickly as possible. So here are a few steps to keep in mind to help prevent damage to your laptop – and yourself – due to a spill.

  1. Turn it off
    • Don’t bother with the start menu shut down command. Do a hard shutdown. Hold your finger down on the power button until the laptop turns off.
    • Liquids and electricity DO NOT MIX and when they do it can be dangerous to both you and your laptop.
  2. Kill the power
    • If you’re plugged in to power your laptop, unplug immediately.
    • If you have a removable battery, remove it.
  3. Unplug anything else
    • If you have any cables, devices, or drives (mice, USBs, flash drives, etc.) attached, unplug them. If your laptop shorts, it can short them as well.
  4. Flip it over
    • Help keep the liquid from traveling further into your laptop’s components by not letting it sift through it.
    • When you flip it, try to do so in a way that you keep the liquid from traveling towards the screen.
    • Do not shake the laptop in order to try and get the liquid out. It may cause further damage to internal components as it wiggles around your laptop finding new crevasses to hide in.
  5. Clean up the spill
    • Fingers crossed it was just a tiny spill, but if it wasn’t, you’ll want to be sure to blot the spill with a lint free paper towel or cloth
    • Pat, blot, but don’t wipe. Wiping may push the liquid onto other areas of the keyboard causing further possibilities for damage.

By this point, you’ve done most of what you can to save it. Now it’s just a waiting game. Try not to turn your laptop back on for at least 24 hours so that the internal components can dry out thoroughly. If you are able and willing, it may be a good idea to open your laptop and remove some components to help speed up the drying process and check for damage.

Now, the next thing to consider is what kind of beverage was spilled on it. The great majority of liquids will require some cleaning of your keyboard and likely some of the internal components as well, especially those that contain sugar. Sticky laptops are no fun. Aside from shorting out components, the biggest problem with liquids invading your laptop is that the particles in the liquid can cause corrosion. Many times, if you notice some small quirks of your computer like a few keys don’t work after your laptop has been turned back on after a spill, this is due to corrosion and it can get worse over time.

corroded motherboard
Corroded motherboard

corroded connector
Corroded connector

Please keep in mind, these steps are not guaranteed to save your laptop; they are just best practices for minimizing the damage. So save early, save often, and always try to have important projects, files, and folders saved somewhere else. Just in case.