Conflict Minerals and Environmental Hazards

Our complex electronic products are made up of many different materials, all with their own unique properties. But sourcing these metals through mining is extremely energy-consuming and results in mining waste – 100 million tonnes per year in Sweden alone. Some metals can only be found in a handful of places around the world, often in countries which have no advanced legislation protecting the environment or governing social aspects. The sharp increase in the demand for rare earth metals and mining-related problems are two reasons why focusing on recovering rare earth metals is so very important.

Desirable Conflict Minerals

In Sweden, mining is generally regarded as a sector of large-scale industrial proportions. Globally, however, around 9 out of 10 miners (or almost 100 million people) work in small-scale, informal and/or family-owned mines. This small-scale mining, which is largely done by hand, is associated with a number of social and environmental problems.

One reason why some metals are in such high demand is that they can only be found in a handful of places. For example, 95 per cent of all rare earth metals (REE) come from China. Many of the current wars in the world originated in conflicts over natural resources. Pewter, wolfram and tantalum, for example, are some of the metals often found in electronic products that are classed as “conflict metals”. They are largely mined where armed groups have seized control of the mineral-rich areas as a way of financing their activities.

One example of a country that has for long suffered from armed conflicts is Congo, a weak state with a long line of militarised power centres financed by mining. Its most well-known product is cobalt, and with some 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt resources Congo enjoys a unique market position.

60% More than half of all the cobalt in the world is found in Congo, a country tied up in an armed conflict.

Mining is an item on the political agenda not only in Sweden but in the whole of the EU. When we chart existing mines and possible resources as well as the global allocation of these, we can clearly see how vulnerable we are when we rely on one or a few counties for our supply. There are also cases where certain metals are more or less monolpolised by individual companies.

Gold Mining – A Threat to the Environment

One example of how the mining of rare metals affects the environment is gold mining. In small-scale mining, mercury is often used to precipitate gold. The substances are mixed and heated until the mercury evaporates, leaving a pure gold precipitate. The process is simple and cheap, but the hazardous mercury vapour spreads, first to the people who work on the site and then on into the atmosphere. In fact, small-scale mining is the largest single source of mercury emissions – as much as 1,000 tonnes every year. And mercury is one of the most hazardous pollutants in the world. It is a neurotoxin which directly harms the brain. As well as affecting those who work in the mining area directly, the vapour that disperses into the atmosphere is eventually absorbed by plants and animals.

There are alternatives to mercury that can be used for precipitating gold, but a widespread unawareness of the hazards of mercury and its damaging effects on people means that it continues to be the preferred option. Mercury is simply regarded as a reliable ingredient that is both cheap and efficient, and the use of it continues.

The Metal Trade Needs Laws and More Stringent Requirements

In the western world, guidelines and regulations have been drawn up to highlight and ultimately influence the way in which metals are obtained. On a global level, these issues are addressed by, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) among others. They have produced standards that can be applied by companies as well as on a national level.

There is also an EU ordinance that regulates supply chain operations in order to lessen the power of any armed groups that may profit from an unregulated market. This ordinance has been criticised as being less comprehensive than the OECD framework insofar as it places demands on the companies that buy the metals, but not on the companies that buy mineral-intensive products such as electronic products. As the global population grows and the standard of living increases, the question of where and how our metals are produced becomes more and more significant, with regard to sustainability and availability alike.

Published 2021-01-26