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Hidden costs of electronics products

Hardware startups founders want to change the people ‘s lives for the better, “solve a real problem”, create a beautiful design, and provide an unforgettable unboxing user experience.  But have you ever wondered what a real impact your product makes and what price the environment pays for it? Let’s look into the starting point of the global supply chain.

We used to think about the IT and consumer electronics industry as an innovation industry and probably the first image that comes into our mind when we think about consumer electronics is the CES show with shiny pavilions full of innovations and technology. But the truth is that the birth of these technologies begins in the poorest places in the world where people sometimes use stone-age tools to supply the electronics industry with essential earth resources. 

Li-ion Battery. 

The rechargeable batteries are used in almost everything from power banks, smartphones to electric cars and the demand is skyrocketing. The estimated compound annual growth rate is 21.8% 

Cobalt, Lithium, Nickel and Graphite are most important elements for Li-ion battery production. 

Cobalt 

Cobalt is an essential element within lithium battery cells, alongside lithium, nickel and manganese, making up the metal oxide slurry of the battery cell’s cathode. Cobalt demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to double by 2025.

The fact is that almost around 70% percent of the all cobalt minded comes from DRC (Congo) and the share is expected to increase. Meantime the country takes 4th place in the list of poorest countries in the world and one of the most volatile and dangerous places on earth. 

Artisanal mining is taking a big place in the supply chain. It was estimated that around 40,000 children were involved in artisanal mining in the Congo. And there may be around two million artisanal workers operating in the DRC making $1 to $3 on a good day where the average work day starts at 5am and lasts around 12hours.  

They use primitive tools to mine the ores and then sell it to local shadow traders and finally the ores go to companies like Congo DongFang International Mining (CDM), which mainly sources copper and cobalt from DRC.

It’s not what we want for our kids, is it?

Graphite

Graphite’s unique ability to conduct electricity while dissipating or transferring heat away from critical components makes it a great material for electronics applications including semiconductors, electric motors, and the production of Anodes for Li-ion batteries. 

China produces around 70%-80%  graphite in the world. And supplies 100% of graphite that is used in Lithium ion batteries.  

The production of graphite causes heavy air pollution for local communities located near production sites. People who have been inhaling the respirable suspended particulate matter are suffering from various respiratory illnesses – asthma, cough, dizziness, difficulty in breathing, eye irritation, etc.

Chemical purification process leads to the pollution of rivers and lands.

Lithium

Argentina, Bolivia and Chile hold around 68% of the world’s supply of the metal beneath its salt flats. And one of the main issues is the water consumption associated with lithium mining. For every tonne of lithium produced, 500,000 gallons of water is used.

In Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed up to 65% of the region’s water, causing havoc for local farmers. 

Chemical leakage is also a major concern when it comes to lithium mining.  

Nickel  

The extraction of nickel comes at an environmental and health cost. Nickel was ranked as the 7th most damaging metal to human health and ecosystems with the 9th highest global warming potential

Summary

We have an insatiable appetite for innovation and technology and it’s good and really changes the lives of some people for the better. But unfortunately it comes at a cost to the environment and also makes a social impact. So when designing a new smart device, we must account for the True Cost of our products and incorporate the environmental and social impact analysis into the product design process. 

Sources

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/graphite-mining-pollution-in-china/?tid=batteriesbottom

https://investorintel.com/sectors/technology-metals/technology-metals-intel/cobalts-time-to-shine-will-come-again/

https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/aug/24/nickel-mining-hidden-environmental-cost-electric-cars-batteries

https://earther.gizmodo.com/the-dirty-truth-about-green-batteries-1833922990

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact

https://www.reportlinker.com/p05796715/Lithium-Ion-Battery-Market.html?utm_source=PRN