Mobile Phones’ Touch Screens: a not-so Touching Life-Cycle Analysis

So once in a blue moon, Gonzo writes a paper that gets the brain juices flowing; and it just so happens that I take a tad of pride in this one. It’s not necessarily the style and and flow of the writing that struck me with this bad boy, but more so the disturbing information I came across while doing research. Enjoy the read, and I hope it gives all my compadres a little slice of awareness and consciousness as it did to me.

The ever-growing uses and features of mobile phones – a product used by 75% of the world’s population as of 2012 – contribute to its expanding consumer market (World Bank). In fact, according to a World Watch report released in 2013, because a number of mobile phone holders own more than one device, the sum of mobile phones has surpassed the world’s population (World Watch). Not only is this concerning as it reflects society’s dependence on technology, but the production of mobile phones has tremendous environmental and social impacts. In this life-cycle analysis, we will specifically look at the touchscreen component of mobile phones, and the extraction of a crucial ingredient in this feature: coltan (columbite–tantalite). Further analysis will look into how it is used in the process of primary production in order to create dry electrolyte tantalum capacitors, a vital component in touchscreen circuitry (Hayes and Burge 19). In addition, we will observe the secondary production (i.e. assembling the touchscreen); distribution methods; and consumption and disposal trends of touchscreen mobile phones.

Australia, Brazil, Canada and China are home to some of the world’s coltan mining activity. However, because 80% of the world’s coltan is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we will narrow our focus of extraction to the Kivu provinces, geographically situated near its border with Rwanda, where most mining activity takes place (The Friends of the Congo par. 2; Hayes and Burge 26). This process of extraction via manual labour (see Step 1 in Fig. 1) reveals a set of serious socio-cultural and environmental impacts.

It can be assumed that recent price hikes on coltan and increasing demand for mobile phones and other touch screen devices are just some of contributing factors to the many social and health impacts inflicted on civilians of the Congo. This booming industry worth billions of dollars a year (with prices ranging anywhere from  $50 and $200 per pound) (Molinski par. 3), has become an incentive for militias from neighbouring countries including Rwanda and Uganda, as well as indigenous Mai Mai militias, to use forced civilian labour in order to achieve maximum extraction and regulate transportation of the Congo’s coltan (Hayes and Burge 28). The demographics exploited for labour in this industry are scattered all along the spectrum: from men and women of working age, to children as young as twelve-years-old. In addition to the brutal working conditions in the process of extraction, “non-bureaucratic organization [and occupation] of [profit-driven] warlords” have also been the underpinnings of breaking down Kivu communities’ social structures (Reno 218; Hayes and Burge 30). Deteriorating health and education statuses; escalation in sexual violence; collapsing judiciary systems; and other extreme violations of human rights are just some of the many harms that are tied to invading military authority and ultimately, the course of extraction (Hayes and Burge 30).

Not only does coltan extraction have immense socio-cultural consequences, it also has devastating ecological implications. One of the major environmental costs is the poor agricultural development because of labour transfer to the far-more profitable coltan industry. Because of this, “large areas that used to grow food crops … are now uncultivated” (Hayes and Burge 29). In addition to the ripple effect caused by the lucrativeness of this industry, coltan mining also has a direct impact on the indigenous fauna. In order to make extraction of this ore easier, forested regions with high concentrations of coltan – especially Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the Mountain Gorilla – have been stripped (Cellular-News par. 8). This not only raises the obvious issue of deforestation, but has also slashed the gorilla population in half from approximately 258 to 130 within the Kahuzi Biega National Park region (Cellular-News par. 8). Furthermore, because of the poverty associated with the displaced workers (who are either recruited by militia, or families urgently needing income), “bush meat” (i.e. slaughtered gorillas) is sold to miners and rebel armies who control the area (Cellular-News par. 8). In fact, according to a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report, “national parks in the region have lost up to 80% of their larger mammals” to the bush meat market (6).

We will now look at the earlier stages of assembling the touchscreen, following this immensely destructive extraction. Here, production requires the coltan to be refined into a heat-resistant powder known as tantalum in order to make tantalum capacitors, which hold high electrical charges. However, according to Judy Wickens, secretary general of the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center based in Belgium, the coltan exchange that occurs between rebel groups and local traders; local traders and regional traders; and later, regional traders and larger regional traders, makes tracing the origins of the coltan used by international manufacturers challenging (Essick par. 21). Nonetheless, statistics show that “more than 20 international mineral trading companies import minerals from the Congo via Rwanda alone”: a disturbing fact considering that Rwanda’s production in 2011 actually exceeded the region’s level of coltan (Essick par. 22; United States Geographic Survey 162-163). This illustrates how difficult is to calculate where and how the coltan used in tantalum is extracted – does coltan that is supposedly ‘ethically’ extracted in, for example,  Canada, actually originate in the black market in Central Africa?

Imports are primarily supplied to Asia, Europe and the United States. Two of the largest tantalum processors, German H.C. Starck – responsible for providing 50% of the world’s tantalum – and Amerian Cabot (CBT) (Essick par. 23) are responsible for separating tantalum from the ore through a combination of gravity and magnetic separation (see step _ in Fig. 1) (Gongyi Forui Machinery Factory pars. 4-5). Firms then sell the heat resistant powder to capacitor manufacturers (some of the largest being AVX, Epcos, Hitachi, Kemet, NEC and Vishay) where a variety of tantalum capacitors are assembled (see step _ in Fig. 1) (Essick par. 23). Though the companies listed above have a relatively ‘clean’ record of direct environmental impact compared to other industries, some have still been involved in ecological scandals. In one example, trichloroethylene (a chemical in industrial greasers that can cause cancer and other health problems) traced to an AVX plant located in Columbia, South Carolina was linked to contamination of local groundwater (Wren par. 5).

The finished capacitors are then sold to some of the largest companies in the telecommunications industry, including BlackBerry, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung, to name a few where additional inputs are used in constructing the screen (see step _ in Fig. 1) (Hayes and Burge 37). It is in the companies’ assembly factories that the environment and well-being and the social equity of their workers have been put to the test. According to Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics, Nokia ranks in third place from first due to factors such as being “just shy of maximum points on hazardous substances” (e.g. antimony compounds) and failing to meet their renewable energy target (par. 2). However, it should also be noted that Nokia has implemented production efforts such as using renewable materials in their cell phones (e.g. bio plastics, bio paints, recycled metals), and a renewable energy target of 100% by 2020 (Green Conduct par. 21; Greenpeace par. 1). Unfortunately, a majority of companies do not strive to be environmentally sustainable. While most firms provide targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the process of manufacturing, Canadian-based company BlackBerry (formerly known as Research In Motion Limited or RIM) not only has no target, but also gives no disclosure of their current GHG emissions (Gersmann par. 2).

The issue of human rights is also at stake during the process of assembling touchscreen mobile phones. Take for example, Chinese electronic manufacturing company, VTech: a 2012 report from Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights revealed that Chinese employees in a Guangdong VTech factory were described to be working in sweatshop conditions (e.g. 12-15 hour shifts, low wages, and no health or social insurance) in order to manufacture electronics at low costsfor telecommunication companies, including Motorola. Furthermore, Samsung has been notorious for over-working their employees. General policies such as “overtime regulations and a system of fines for employees that [are] late or absent” illustrate how the company has come to its reputation (Latif par. 3). For instance, in a 2013 case, workers “in the Amazon region [were] given just 32 seconds to assemble a mobile phone” with some accounts of packing as many as 3,000 phones a day (Page, par. 4).

Though these are just a few examples of the environmental and human capital used in the manufacturing process, it gives us a basic understanding of the ecological and social consequences that continue even after the extraction of coltan from the Earth.

Because the telecommunications industry is so vast, we will look at a few alternatives that companies choose when strategizing distribution methods. Packaging practices that sit at the more eco-friendly end of the environmental impact spectrum include using recycled material and using soy ink – an alternative to petroleum-based inks which is renewable, biodegradable and lowers the cost of the recycling process (CleanTechnica, par. 1-5). At the other end of the spectrum, many of these companies fail to implement a paper procurement policy (which would exclude suppliers that are involved in deforestation and illegal logging) for the remainder of un-recycled material used in packaging (Greenpeace par. 3). Among the many other resources used in packaging are crude oil (for plastics) and ore (for aluminum). Getting mobile phones from their manufacturers to the consumer market is done via air, rail, road or sea, all of which require the use of fossil fuels, causing a disruption to the climate (Environmental Protection Agency The Life Cycle of a Cell Phone).

Once a mobile phone has reached the consumer market, its uses provide a laundry list of functions in addition to its initial (but now diminishing) purpose for spoken communication, including being a portable music player; a game console; an Internet browser; and what writer Dan Tynan foresees, a portable television set (par. 3). Despite its many uses – or perhaps because of – the lifespan of mobile phones is increasingly short-lived. Regardless of their five-year-average life expectancy, owners dispose of their working devices after an average of 18 months (Milovantseva and Jean-Daniel par. 5).

Although major mobile phone companies have implemented e-waste programs for users seeking a more efficient way to dispose of their devices, the United States Environmental Protection Agency revealed that discarded mobile phones made up 8% of the 25% of electronics that users chose to recycle (Environmental Protection Agency Frequent Questions: ECycling par. 2). Furthermore, the regulation standards of various e-waste recycling plants fluctuate. For instance, in a recycling plant situated in Guiya, China where 60%-80% of families work, blood lead levels higher than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (μg/dL) were found amongst 70.8% of children in the area – who by definition have elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) (Zheng et. al 15-16). The remainder of disposed phones end up in landfills, with plastics, ceramics and trace metals that can leach into the environment for centuries (Milovantseva and Jean-Daniel par. 1).

From a dull black metallic ore; to the refining processes of international companies; to the hands of manufacturers for further production; to the lucrative mobile phone industry and multinationals for final stages of assembly and distribution; to its use by consumers; and finally to disposal in either landfills or e-waste programs, the journey of what has been coined as a ‘conflict mineral’, shows the social and ecological burdens that extend beyond the people and environment of the Congo. This life-cycle analysis illustrates the incessant cycle that stems from a seemingly-innocuous product used by 75% of the world’s population (World Bank). It then raises the ethical question of whether or not there is any rationale behind creating the touchscreen feature of this gadget at the expense of the environment, and the health and safety of humans. Is extraction and further assembly of this raw material really worth the gruesomely raw ripple effect?


Works Cited

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