Amnesty International Shines a Spotlight on Cobalt Supply Chains

amnestylogoIn case you missed it, a new report by Amnesty International has been making headlines as it ties child labor and unsafe working conditions to electronics manufacturing supply chains. See for example, “Children as young as seven mining cobalt used in smartphones, Amnesty says” (Annie Kelly for The Guardian, 1/18/16) and “Your Smartphone May Be Linked to Child Labor” (Jan Lee for Triple Pundit, 1/21/16).

According to the report, over half the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and 20% of that is from artisanal mines where young children may be involved in unsafe practices exposing them to high levels of cobalt. From the Triple Pundit article linked to above, ‘“As with adult miners,” Amnesty International corroborated, “they were exposed to high levels of cobalt on a consistent basis, but did not even have gloves or face masks to wear.” In most cases, the authors pointed out, the financial gain of their work was nominal: “[The children reported] they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads, to earn between one and two dollars a day.”’

Cobalt has a number of industrial applications, including widespread use in lithium ion battery cathodes. These batteries are used in hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as in our ubiquitous portable electronic devices, such as cell phones, laptops, tablets, digital cameras, and handheld games. While cobalt is an essential element in small quantities (it’s a component of vitamin B12), high levels of exposure may have adverse effects on the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, and cause dermal, hematological, and immunological effects (see http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp33-c2.pdf).

The full report may be downloaded from the Amnesty International web site in English, Chinese, or French (PDF Format; 88 pages). According to the site: “This report documents the hazardous conditions in which artisanal miners, including thousands of children, mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It goes on to trace how this cobalt is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices. Using basic hand tools, miners dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground, and accidents are common. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure to cobalt, adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment. This report is the first comprehensive account of how cobalt enters the supply chain of many of the world’s leading brands.”

You can also check out the Amnesty International video below:

Reminder: Manuscripts for Special Edition of Challenges Due 12/31/15

challenges-logoManuscripts are still being accepted for the special issue of the journal Challenges, entitled “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design.” 

From the issue’s rationale:

“Electronics are at the heart of an economic system that has brought many out of poverty and enhanced quality of life. In Western society in particular, our livelihoods, health, safety, and well being are positively impacted by electronics. However, there is growing evidence that our disposal of electronics is causing irreparable damage to the planet and to human health, as well as fueling social conflict and violence.

While global demand for these modern gadgets is increasing, policy to handle the increased volumes of electronic waste has not kept pace. International policy governing safe transfer, disposal, reclamation, and reuse of electronic waste is nonexistent or woefully lacking. Where laws do exist about exporting and importing hazardous waste, they are routinely circumvented and enforcement is spotty at best. While European Union countries lead the way in responsible recycling of electronic and electrical devices under various EU directives, most industrialized nations do not have such policies. In the U.S., for example, most electronic waste is still discarded in landfills or ground up for scrap.

It is imperative that we consider how green design practices can address the growing electronic waste problem. This special issue is meant to do just that and spur discussions on how electronic products can become greener and more sustainable.”

If you are interested in submitting a paper for this special issue, please send a title and short abstract (about 100 words) to the Challenges Editorial Office at challenges@mdpi.com, indicating the special issue for which it is to be considered. If the proposal is considered appropriate for the issue, you will be asked to submit a full paper. Complete instructions for authors and an online submission form for the completed manuscripts are available on the Challenges web site at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/challenges/special_issues/electronic-waste#info. The deadline for manuscript submissions is December 31, 2015. Questions may be addressed to co-guest editor Joy Scrogum.

Pollution Prevention Week: E-waste and the World’s Most Polluted Places

Happy P2 Week, Everyone! If you’ve never heard of this celebration, P2 stands for Pollution Prevention, and P2 Week is celebrated from September 15-21, 2014. P2 Week is in fact celebrated annually during the third week in September, and according to the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR), it’s “an opportunity for individuals, businesses, and government to emphasize and highlight their pollution prevention and sustainability activities and achievements, expand current pollution prevention efforts, and commit to new actions.” Check out their site and P2 Week Tool Kit, as well as the US EPA’s Pollution Prevention Week page for tips on preventing pollution at home and work.

Top Ten Toxic Threats Report CoverPreventing pollution is of particular importance when it comes to considerations of sustainable electronics design, manufacture, use, and disposal, given that an annual report by the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland included for the first time in 2013, Agbogbloshie, in Accra, Ghana, as one of the ten most polluted places on Earth.  The Top Ten Toxic Threats: Cleanup, Progress, and Ongoing Challenges 2013 edition “presents a new list of the top ten polluted places and provides updates on sites previously published by Blacksmith and Green Cross. A range of pollution sources and contaminants are cited, including hexavalent chromium from tanneries and heavy metals released from smelting operations. The report estimates that sites like those listed in the top ten pose a health risk to more than 200 million people in low- and medium-income countries.” Other notoriously contaminated sites on the list include Chernobyl in the Ukraine, the Citarum River in Indonesia, and the heavy concentration of tanneries in Hazaribagh, Bangladesh.

The Agbogbloshie site has been the focus of a lot of recent media attention due to the extensive environmental degradation caused there by informal electronics recycling; it is the second largest electronic waste processing site in West Africa. If you would like to see the extent of the pollution, and get a feel for the lives of the people who work in the area, some of whom are children, I recommend the film Terra Blight. (See my previous post on this film’s inclusion in a sustainability film festival on campus, and the LibGuide that accompanies the films from the festival. The film can be checked out from the Prairie Research Institute Library by those on the UI campus or via interlibrary loan.) A number of striking photo essays have also been published, including one earlier this year in the Guardian by photographer Kevin McElvaney. The film and photos show us the stark consequences of endless manufacturing advances and consumer quests for upgrades. Gadgets that aren’t responsibly recycled may end up in landfills, or worse–in places like Agbogbloshie where the poor try to earn an honest living processing the waste to salvage precious materials using whatever means are available, including fire or rocks to hammer open lead-laden monitors.

It is the lead spilled into the environment through informal recycling that earns Agbogbloshie its place on the Top Ten Toxic Threats list, though certainly other toxins are released from the electronics processed there. From the report’s highlights: “Agbogbloshie is a vibrant informal settlement with considerable overlap between industrial, commercial, and residential zones. Heavy metals released in the burning process easily migrate into homes, food markets, and other public areas. Samples taken around the perimeter of Agbogbloshie, for instance, found a presence of lead levels as high as 18,125 ppm in soil. The US EPA standard for lead in soil is 400 ppm. Another set of samples taken from five workers on the site found aluminum, copper, iron, and lead levels above ACGIH TLV guidelines. For instance, it was found that one volunteer had aluminum exposure levels of 17 mg/m3 compared with the ACGIH TLV guideline of 1.0 mg/m3.”

Lest you think the answer to this tragedy lies exclusively in preventing export of unwanted electronics from the first world to the third, increasingly developing countries are becoming sources of e-waste themselves. Indeed, the Top Ten Toxic Threats report notes “Ghana annually imports around 215,000 tons of secondhand consumer electronics from abroad, primarily from Western Europe, and generates another 129,000 tons of e-waste every year.” Even if it weren’t true that developing countries are also sources of e-waste, cutting off certain flows of such waste ultimately shifts problems from one place to another, resulting in different, yet still complicated issues. The leaded glass in CRTs, for example, is becoming increasingly difficult to process, as the demand for its reuse in the creation of new CRT monitors is dwindling. Currently only one manufacturer of CRT monitors remains, in India. Within the US states struggle to find ways to deal with massive amounts of CRT glass from obsolete TVs and computer monitors, leading to controversy over proposed uses (such as alternative daily cover material in landfills) and nightmarish stories of CRT glass stockpiles being left for authorities to manage after recycling operations go out of business.

The point is that the only long-term solution to stopping environmental degradation in places like Agbogbloshie, and the struggles to find safe and widely accepted end-of-life management options for electronics and all their components is to practice true pollution prevention–through source reduction, modification of production processes, promotion of non-toxic or less toxic materials, conservation of natural resources, and reuse of materials to prevent their inclusion in waste streams. This will by no means be easy, nor will the changes necessary happen overnight. But it’s work that must be done, and done by ALL of us, in whatever way we interact with the electronics product lifecycle. Designers and manufacturers must learn and practice green chemistry and green engineering. Consumers must become aware of the sustainability issues surrounding electronics and make more informed choices–including buying less by extending the useful lives of devices as much as possible. And recyclers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and consumers must all work to ensure that materials from products that have reached the end of their first intended life be collected and reclaimed for use in new processes. Electronics are something we all use, at home and at work, in one form or another. And through images and statistics like those from Agbogbloshie, we understand that environmental and social impacts of our industrial world do not truly go “away” any more than waste itself does.

To learn more about pollution prevention, visit the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable (GLRPPR) web site. GLRPPR is posting P2 week information all week on its blog, including two posts contributed by SEI related to electronics. Check out the GLRPPR blog on Tuesday (9/16/14) for source reduction tips for electronics consumers, and on Thursday (9/18/14) for information on flame retardants and electronics.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

When consumers purchase electronics, they have usually been considering which new gadget to buy for a while. For example, when upgrading phones, consumers may shop at different wireless companies, comparing and contrasting the look, feel, features, and quality of what will soon be their new toy. All of us have been there! I became a Blackberry enthusiast (and that is putting it lightly) about two years ago. I was browsing for new phones that would meet my phone expectations, but that would also have that new pizazz and would almost have that “new phone smell.” After a few months of research, I headed to my wireless company and picked up my new little electronic bundle of joy! I was more excited than words can describe about my new, shiny, red, perfectly wonderful and could-do-no-wrong Blackberry. It was a simple transaction, I hand over my money and sign a renewal contract with the company, and I receive my lovely new gadget! What could be wrong about that?

To answer my own question: conflict materials! In short, conflict materials are earth elements that are necessary for many electronic applications. For example, these materials keep your electronics from overheating, help materials maintain an electronic charge, or make the “vibrate” function of your phone possible. Elizabeth Dias of Time Magazine wrote “First Blood Diamonds, Now Blood Computers?,” explaining why these materials are referred to as “conflict materials.” Unfortunately, the trade of these materials is controlled by militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The money used to purchase the conflict materials has been used to fuel a gruesome war within the DRC, where miners (including women and children) are forced to work long hours under horrible conditions. The miners live in fear, as armed guards watch over them. In addition, the militia is also taxing their workers an exorbitant amount, making their livelihoods continuously dependent on harsh working and living conditions. The powers in charge not only use their power to exploit the workers of DRC, but they also use extreme violence and fear tactics to intimidate workers. Most people living in militia-controlled regions live in fear of their lives, as massacres of entire families as well as brutal rapes are a common practice. Lydia Polgreen and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have additionally published articlesCongo’s Riches, Looted by Renegade Troops” and “Death by Gadget,” respectively, to shed light to this problem.

Similar to my previous post titled “Future of electronics after 2012,” I am not only concerned about what the problems are. Instead, I am interested in possible solutions. Jeffrey Davis of Green Lifestyle Magazine published “Conflict Materials in Electronics” where he explains the current problem with conflict materials. Furthermore, he discusses possible solutions. An obvious recommendation many have is for manufacturers to stop purchasing “conflict materials.” This action, however, could result in more violence as the militia would not have their source of income, which would only make for worse living conditions of the miners and workers. Davis offers additional ways we can help the people of the DRC.

Additionally, several organizations’ aim to aid the people of the Congo and are determined to find ways to bring attention to this cause. Two main organizations focusing on the Congo and the “Conflict Material” problem are Enough! Project and Raise Hope for the Congo. In addition, Rachel Cernansky of Planet Green published Conflict Minerals 101: Coltan, the Congo Act, and How You Can Help, offering further information about conflict materials and ways to help the current conflict in the Congo.

While most consumers are unaware of the current “conflict materials” problem, the US government seems to be paying attention. On January 5, 2010, President Obama signed Pub.L. 111-203/HR 4173, also known as Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The act would require some electronics manufacturers to disclose where they obtained conflict materials in the DRC or an adjoining country. Companies would be required to report this to the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and place the information on their website. Furthermore, companies may also need to hire external auditors and provide additional information to the SEC. Baker and McKenszie has published a Client Alert titled “New Reporting and Audit Obligations for High-Tech and Other Manufacturers” on August 16, which details the act, by providing an executive summary, reporting requirements, and practical considerations.

While purchasing electronics for most people within the United States can be done inexpensively, most consumers, including myself, do not think about the negative consequences our actions have. When handing our money to electronics manufacturers and distributors in order to get the newest, coolest phone, our bank account is not the only thing that takes a hit. As a society, we need to be aware of the materials, mining and manufacturing processes that occur in order to bring us the electronics we want.

Death of Advanced Recycling Fee?

thumb1In the last few weeks, the issue of California’s e-waste recycling has become an increasingly prominent issue.  When speaking of US electronic waste rules, the general statement was “California is the only one with an advanced recycling fee (ARF)”, but their process seemed to work. After all, California’s e-waste laws have been in place much longer than e-waste legislation of other states. Unfortunately, it seems that California’s model of e-waste collection has unfortunately failed.

It seems that in 2002, when e-waste legislation was first considered and drafted, California also considered manufacturer responsibility legislation (Modesto Bee), which is currently used by 21 states. The voices of the tech industry, however, prevailed and California passed an e-waste recycling law requiring an advanced recycling fee (ARF). Given this legislation, when a customer purchases a new monitor or television, they are charged a fee (between $8 and $25), which should in turn be used to recycle the purchased equipment. The goal of the program was to provide a way for consumers to dispose of their electronics responsibly while providing funds for a green industry (Sacramento Bee). While the state had good intentions, no one could foresee the fraudulent activities that would take place.

Due to the amount of state-funding, hundreds of new electronics recyclers sprung up throughout the state (Merced Sun-Star). State officials passing the ARF legislation only counted on the environmental spirits in the state, but they did not foresee the greed that would take over the program. This has led to organizations importing electronics from Arizona and other neighboring states, in order to recycle the electronics within California and receive money for recycling such electronics products. To date, the state of California has paid approximately $320 million for electronics recycling, since the law’s passing in 2005 (Desert Dispatch). The state additionally recognizes that approximately $30 million have been used to recycle electronics which came in from other states, but it has rejected approximately $23 million of fraudulent claims. The Sacramento Bee offers a chart detailing California’s recyclers with the most claim denials.

Understandably, many are angered by the news and knowing their money is used to recycle e-waste  brought in from illegally other states. Environmentalists, however, have another problem with California’s law and its mistreatment – the disposal of usable monitors. California’s model makes it more enticing for people to recycle their “old” but usable monitors, instead of using them until they physically break or donating them to a charitable organization. ScrippsNews tackles this issue in their article “Mounds of usable computer monitors in Calif. dumps“.

So how can California handle this apparent fraud and misuse of their laws and funds? Will they change their laws to reflect other US states? If so, how long will this process take? What can be done in the meantime? These questions need answers – and soon! The failing system needs to go to the root of the problem, update legislation to meet these new challenges, and with proper care and maintenance, the system will be working better, more effectively, and should last for a very long time.

Watch Willie Cade's lecture: "The Truth, Tragedy, and Transformation of E-Waste"

On November 11th, 2009, at the I-Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign, IL, Willie Cade gave a lecture titled, “The Truth, Tragedy, and Transformation of E-Waste”.

Continue reading “Watch Willie Cade's lecture: "The Truth, Tragedy, and Transformation of E-Waste"”

E-waste International

ewaste-computer-recycling-image[1]As Aida mentioned in an earlier post, a lack of a global standard for e-waste is one of the biggest problems we, in the e-waste industry, have to deal with.  Inconsistencies between states, countries, and continents not only make it hard on the manufacturers but also on the well-intentioned collectors.

Sunil Herat, a senior lecturer in waste management at Griffith University in Australia, addressed this problem in a recent paper titled International regulations and treaties on electronic waste (e-waste).  Herat has given an overview of the different policies in different regions.  This post will be a summary and commentary of that document. Continue reading “E-waste International”

SEI Provides "Ask an Expert" Service

The Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI), hosted by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), is pleased to announce the availability of its online “Ask an Expert” service for the submission of questions related to electronics and their environmental impacts.

Questions related to electronic waste, or “e-waste” issues, sustainable electronics design, improving electronics manufacturing processes and related topics can be submitted via an online form available at http://www.sustainelectronics.illinois.edu/services/askexpert.cfm. SEI staff members will provide one hour of free Internet and/or literature searching related to your sustainable electronics question. Also provided is input from ISTC staff scientists and/or referrals to external contacts for further information on technical questions. Responses can be expected within a week (usually within 1-2 business days). Citizens, organizations, government agencies, businesses, non-profit groups, and academic institutions are all invited to use this free service.

The responses obtained from the Ask an Expert service are meant for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as endorsements by SEI, ISTC or any affiliated organization. Responses are also meant to be starting points for inquirers rather than definitive answers, advice or prescriptions for action. Inquirers must draw their own conclusions based upon the information provided.

In the near future, questions and answers received via this service will be archived and searchable on the SEI web site, www.sustainelectronics.illinois.edu. An extensive collection of resources is also under development for the web site, and archived Ask an Expert questions and answers will be integrated into relevant resource collections.

According to the U.S. EPA, Americans own nearly three billion electronic products and continually purchase new ones to replace those deemed “obsolete,” even though about two-thirds of the devices are still in working order. As designers, manufacturers and the general public are becoming more aware and concerned about this issue, SEI’s Ask an Expert service will be one way to address concerns and assist in more sustainable practices.

SEI is a consortium dedicated to the development and implementation of a more sustainable system for designing, producing, remanufacturing, and recycling electronic devices. Members of the consortium include academia, non-profit organizations, government agencies, manufacturers, designers, refurbishers, and recyclers. Specific elements of the SEI include programs for research, education, data management, and technical assistance. SEI conducts collaborative research; facilitates networking and information exchange among participants; promotes technology diffusion via demonstration projects; and provides forums for the discussion of policy and legislation.

For more information on SEI, visit www.sustainelectronics.illinois.edu or contact Dr. Tim Lindsey, Associate Director of ISTC, at 217-333-8955 . For more information on the Ask an Expert service contact Laura Barnes, ISTC librarian at 217-333-8957.

ISTC is a unit of the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Wisconsin Senate Approves E-Waste Recycling Bill

The text of this bill (SB-107) is available online.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Owner of EarthEcycle Speaks Out on Allegations Against Company

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.