While the thought of powering through your day without the use of electronics may not be appealing or even feasible, you might feel like doing so once you’ve found out they contain materials that are literally creating wars and human rights abuses halfway across the world. 

That’s because most electronics house chemical or mineral components that are highly valuable in third world countries particularly in the eastern Congo region of Africa. There, conflict materials are creating the kind of chaos that’s proven extremely difficult to completely eradicate. 

The good news is that electronics recycling can help to reduce our reliance on conflict materials by providing less controversial sources of the precious mineral components needed for electronics manufacturing.

Conflict Materials in Electronics

The consumer electronics manufacturing process is both simple and complex. Each company owns uses its own patented technology to create the particular nuances associated with a brand, but essentially all electronics manufacturing relies on certain precious metal components.

These are the precious metals and minerals such as gold, copper, silver and platinum that make your outdated electronics so valuable even after they’ve reached the end of their life cycle. The best part is that extracting these latent valuable assets from recycled electronics creates a more sustainable and environmentally friendly source than traditional mining.

Currently, traditional mining is the best way to get at the precious materials needed for electronics production. Many of the metals and minerals beyond gold and silver are extremely rare and can only be found one particular region of the world – the Congo region of Africa. This of course creates the type of demand that leads to fierce competition among landowners in the region.

Currently, those “landowners” are brutal and seemingly uncontrollable militiamen with no qualms about dictating when, where and how often the precious materials are mined and they are especially adamant how much money they should receive in return. The Congo militiamen are notorious for using unscrupulous methods to maintain this authority over the region, all in order to remain in control of the precious and rare material elements need for electronics production.

Curbing the Congo

As more and more light is shed on the situation in the heart of Africa, nonprofits and government agencies are taking steps to curb the situation and relinquish power from the militiamen. Meanwhile, nearly all electronics manufactured around the world contain some amount of conflict minerals, especially the three T’s coming out of the Congo – tin, tungsten and tantalum.
The conflict minerals supply chain is not exactly formally regulated. In fact, according to the Enough Project, a global non-profit aimed at ending the genocide and human rights abuses associated with conflict minerals, verbal assurance is the only gateway exporters use to prevent the purchase of conflict materials. Exporters simply ask suppliers whether they’ve sourced the minerals from illegal areas – making the system much less than foolproof.

However, increasing awareness has caused the U.S. government to implement legislation that requires the electronics industry to refrain from sourcing materials from the eastern Congo regions. In spite of the atrocities associated with the region, the industry spends large amounts of money lobbying for the right to continue using the system, minus the transparency legislation to the contrary would require.

What Can You Do About the Conflict Materials in Your Devices

Currently, the three T’s coming from the eastern Congo regions are most prevalent in mobile phones, tablets, MP3 players and video game platforms. The militiamen control the mining fields and trading houses where the materials are processed and smuggled illegally via human carrier, cars, trucks and planes all operating in violation of the Congo’s mining and trading laws. 

Billions of dollars have been diverted from the Congolese people in this way, leaving most of the population shackled by generational poverty. Every dollar earned in the illegal trade of conflict minerals is a dollar that could be going toward a better life for the citizens of the region and toward healing the effects of decades of violence and human rights abuses.

The government of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda are currently working to eradicate the rule and threat of Congolese militiamen, but the endeavor has proven challenging. With demand very high for the materials, and electronics manufacturers willing to look the other way on the issue, it’s an uphill battle for governments and advocacy groups to convince decision-makers and somehow create lasting change in the region.

Yet, electronics recycling offers a viable way for concerned consumers aware of the situation in the Congo to forgo the illicit system or at least neutralize it in some way. Recycling electronics provides large amounts of the three T’s and gold in ways that don’t involve violence or genocide. In fact, compared to traditional mining, extraction through electronics recycling, or urban mining as its called, can produce higher amounts of precious metals and with better quality as a result.

Doing Your Part

The question remains, what can you do, as a business or consumer, to stop the devastating effects of conflict materials? Of course, it may be nearly impossible to think of simply not using electronics at all. Our society has come much too far in obvious reliance on consumer electronics to do so, but it is definitely feasible to recycle.

Keeping electronics out of the landfills is not just a smart choice environmentally. It’s also an sound ethical decision in light of the conflicts its components can cause. If recycling electronics can decrease the dependence on traditionally mined conflict minerals and metals, it could finally be the source of a permanent and sustainable solution to the hard to control crisis in eastern Congo regions.

The Conflict Materials In Your Electronics 

Who would think that electronics recycling could be such a versatile and all-encompassing solution to a number of perplexing global issues – including the crisis in the Congo? Electronics recycling is in fact an extremely wise choice for taking on the e-waste crisis, and as a stable source of valuable metals and minerals – and it just might change the world.