Unearthing the Dark Side of Cobalt Mining

The True Cost of Our Rechargeable Batteries
Batteries are found in devices we use every day and have a profound impact on our livelihood. Unfortunately, many of these devices are tainted with the stain of unethically mined cobalt
used in the manufacturing of their batteries. Tier 1 battery material suppliers often take little to no
regard for the ethical status of sourcing plants, ultimately leading to us, and our devices, having to bear
a heavy ethical burden.
Batteries are found in devices we use every day and have a profound impact on our livelihood. Unfortunately, many of these devices are tainted with the stain of unethically mined cobalt used in the manufacturing of their batteries. Tier 1 battery material suppliers often take little to no regard for the ethical status of sourcing plants, ultimately leading to us, and our devices, having to bear a heavy ethical burden.
Ayman Sharieff


Our world is dominated by the rechargeable battery. From charging our iPhones and Samsungs, to powering the next generation of Tesla vehicles, it’s no wonder why rechargeable batteries are in such high demand. As humanity begins the shift toward a cleaner and more ecologically sustainable society, we have to consider the renewability of our rechargeable batteries.

This generation is at the forefront of technology, as such, it’s really no surprise that by 2050 there will be over one hundred billion interconnected devices around the world, each packed with their own little energy box. For context, in the roughly 75,000 years that humans have been around, there have only been 109 billion people who have lived and died. In the next thirty years we’re set to hit that in number in smart devices alone. Suffice it to say we’re going to need a ton of batteries, but therein lies the rub

The Battery Problem

The production and disposal of rechargeable cells, especially those made using cobalt, have raised red flags in the minds of scientists around the world regarding their true sustainability. Essentially, batteries operate through an electrochemical process using reduction and oxidation. Reduction is the process of an element gaining electrons, while oxidation is the process of an element losing electrons. Battery manufactures use specific elements that gain and lose electrons to generate a current of electricity. That’s all a battery is. Now, typically manufactures use electron losing elements like zinc, graphite or platinum for the anode or negative terminal, but the positive cathode terminal is a different story

Cobalt is an essential cathode material in the manufacturing and production of rechargeable energy cells; It’s used because of its superior ability to dissipate heat generated from batteries which degrade their overall lifespan. The only problem is that it’s crazy expensive, often costing upwards of $34,000 per metric ton. That would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the average person isn’t swimming in literal pools of gold like Scrooge McDuck. One of the major issues with rechargeable batteries is that they don’t include externalities in their price. With them included, we would be in a whole heap of trouble.

A vast majority of the world’s cobalt reserves lie within the Congolese borders and a vast majority of that cobalt isn’t ethically mined. Despite the perceived positives associated with cobalt’s battery efficiency and thermal insulation, one must consider the uptick in human rights violations so severe many would call it modern slavery.

The Humanitarian Crisis in the Congo

The exploitation of the Congolese people started long before technological boom of the 21st century. Following the colonization of the Congo by the Kingdom of Belgium in 1908, mining operations began to spread like wildfire. Kyahile Mangi, and elder in a Congolese community recalled the traumatic events of the foreign invasion of Congo’s mines. As the foreigners approached and the blasting of the rocks loudened, the walls of the mud-brick homes began to crack; dangerous chemicals seeped into the river which was used for bathing and washing. After all that, the mine’s manager came to relocate everyone. Both the Congolese and Belgium authorities knew about the high percentage of rare-earth elements and valuable gems that were scattered across the Congo; Each party sought to harvest the wealth found in the country’s ground, albeit in radically different ways.

The earliest foreign miners made use of explosives to clear out large chunks of rock and overburden. As time went on, and the demand for precious metals such as tin, tungsten, tantalum, as well as precious gems such as gold and diamonds increased, an increase in material output had to occur. This heightened demand led to the slow and progressive enslavement of the local Congolese people.

Workers were forces to work long and grueling hours in the sweltering Central-African sun. As the 1950’s rolled around many colonial superpowers began to relinquish their claims in Africa. Belgium was among the last major colonial hold-out, only freeing the newly crowned Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960. Unfortunately, the abuses didn’t stop there. Foreign interests in the country continued to exist and exploit the Congolese people for their precious metal rich lands.

These abuses stretched well beyond the African and European continents, however. The United States had vested interest in the Congolese mining industry for decades as it had been the main supplier of uranium, which was used in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war.

What’s in it for the Environment?

The issue of exploitative cobalt mining strategies isn’t only one that concerns the human rights abuses of the Congolese people, but also the ecological destruction that they’ll have to deal with for centuries to come. Of course, mining in and of itself is an inherently destructive human activity, in fact it’s just about the most ecologically destructive humans can be aside from literally sterilizing and dismantling entire ecosystem.

Mining in just the US alone poses such a significant threat to local wildlife and residents out in the western United States that the federal government instituted a land reclamation act known as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) in 1977; It was specifically designed to restore the ecosystem after a mining event and to punish mining companies that do a poor job at rehabilitating the ecosystem which they’ve mined in.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said with the state of affairs in the Congo. I interviewed Lindsey Daugherty, a current AP Environmental Science teacher at Patriot High School, with an aim to more clearly understand why companies and governments would allow for the reckless destruction of natural habitats and human living areas.

As many of us know, tech giants such as Apple and Samsung, as well as battery manufacturers and distributors such as Panasonic, LG, and Tesla make up the bulk of the world’s battery material consumers. These companies, which need to get their cobalt from somewhere, look toward cheap mineral mines in the Congo.

With regards to  government intervention in these mines, Daugherty said, “We can’t just have huge countries [and firms] coming into this area [The Congo] and just destroying it, getting what we need, paying the people very little, and leaving [the land] completely ruined.”

arieMines in the Congo have completely ravaged the local environments. Entire rainforests have been destroyed in order to make way for more cobalt, diamond, gold, and tin mines.

It’s gotten so bad that “we might even resort to UN and international oversight having to come in and make sure these companies [and mining groups] are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Daugherty.

These unethical mines have existed and will continue to exist unless something is done to help put an end to these harsh practices. As we came to a close, I asked Daugherty one final question; what can the average person do to make a difference? She said —

“[Simply getting a proper] education, forming clubs, using social media to spread awareness, collecting funds [you can make a real impact] . . . and when you’re in your clubs bring that information out to the open.”

Spreading awareness is a massive contributing factor to putting an end to the human rights abuses going on in the Congo. In part two of this article, we’ll continue to explore the Congo, the Congolese people, and the human toll cobalt mining has taken on the local peoples. In the meantime, it’s crucial that this generation takes a staunch stance on the atrocities in the Congo and human rights abuses around the world so that we may all live in a more just and ethical world.

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