Posts


Now, more than ever, the world is becoming more interconnected. While the new societal and political inter-dependencies are obvious, even fields like manufacturing are a part of this trend. One product serves as a glaring example of this phenomenon: the smartphone. This hand-sized piece of technology has a shocking amount of components from a shocking number of places. Tech giant Apple sources materials from nearly 45 countries to make its products. While global interconnectedness can certainly be a positive thing, especially in worldwide manufacturing arrangements, at-risk communities in this process can pay a price. Though there is potential for exploitation at many stages of production, it is especially bad at the raw materials stage. Mining toxic minerals like nickel, cadmium and cobalt can come at a high cost to human health. Unfortunately, the production of smartphones harms children in poverty.

To explore the specific threats to child laborers, it is helpful to focus in on one microcosm within the larger mining industry. One particularly harmful mineral in cell phone production is cobalt. Largely mined by hand, cobalt is a silvery-gray metal that people use for many different products, including metal alloys in jet engines and powerful magnets. It is also common in lithium-ion batteries, which are rechargeable energy sources that power mobile devices. The rise in the prevalence of electric cars, which use the same technology, means the demand for cobalt is only rising.

What Conditions Do Children Face?

While countries like Russia and Cuba produce this ore, workers mine more than 50 percent of the world’s cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Due to this high rate of production, most of the exploitation in cobalt mines occur in this country. As mine operators struggle to keep up with demand, the poverty rate in the DRC stands at nearly 65 percent.  That means that many desperate people are willing to work in dangerous conditions for hardly any money.

In January 2016, Amnesty International published an investigation into human rights abuses in the DRC’s cobalt mines and it found horrifying conditions. Workers face permanent lung and skin damage, as well as immediate physical harm from cave-ins and other accidents. Not only that, but the investigation also found children as young as 7 years old employed in these conditions. This is how the production of smartphones harms children in poverty.

Children told Amnesty International that for 12 hours of work, they could expect to earn only $1 or 2. When government or industry authorities visited mines, supervisors order the children to hide or stay away from the mines for a few days so others would not spot them. These poor conditions and ill-policed regulations are the reasons why cobalt is known as “the blood diamond of batteries.”

How Can People Fix This Problem?

Some companies have taken the initiative to reduce child exploitation, especially in the years following the 2016 Amnesty International report. Electric car-maker Tesla and its battery provider, Panasonic, have worked hard to pursue cobalt-free battery alternatives. These companies managed to cut cobalt use by 60 percent in six years. However, current technologies have reached their limits. Removing more cobalt will start to pose a longevity problem, as well as a fire-risk.

Because cobalt will remain in use for at least the near future, it is essential to protect impoverished child workers. Most simply, because this issue seems far away, it is easy to forget its gravity. For that reason, remembering the power of consumer impact is important. Pay attention to how companies operate and support businesses that perform the necessary due diligence to run responsibly.

For example, Apple, like many large tech and development companies, has a website with details about the ethics of its supply chain. Read up on brands’ efforts, and make sure to voice any concerns (or potentially, any support) at a website like this one.

What Can People Do to Make a Personal Impact?

Direct habits also make a difference. Try to avoid buying new electronic devices if possible. There are many websites, such as Gazelle, where customers can buy like-new phones to prevent the need for mining new cobalt. Additionally, if a device bites the dust, consider recycling its components. While lithium-ion batteries cannot go into the usual blue recycling bins, resources like this one at call2recycle can help identify the most convenient option.

Lastly, consider learning more and keeping up with the latest news on the Cobalt Institute’s website. This group is a non-governmental trade association that provides information and assists in identifying and solving problems in the cobalt industry. With 62 years of experience and all of the major producers in membership, this group has great influence in these matters.

While today, the production of smartphones harms children in poverty, improving conditions are just around the corner. With responsible choices, better supply chain management and technical innovations, this problem could soon be one of the past.

– Molly Power
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

New Tech InfrastructureThe recent ravaging of the island territory of Puerto Rico, first by Hurricane Irma, then by Maria, is a reminder of the sheer destructive mayhem Mother Nature can wield—but also of the ability of individuals, businesses and governments across the globe to come together to solve problems and help those in need. Although the storms undoubtedly caused major problems, they also offered opportunities for change and innovation.

One such possibility is the chance to build a new tech infrastructure from the ground up. Many U.S. companies are stepping up to join in on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Under the direction of Elon Musk, Tesla is sending its Powerpack battery system to Puerto Rico to help homes, businesses, hospitals and schools use their existing solar panels by providing energy storage. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is sending special balloons to help restore cell phone connectivity in areas where the infrastructure is down. Meanwhile, Facebook pledged $1.5 million in relief money to various charities and sent employees to Puerto Rico to work toward restoring internet connectivity to the island.

In an interview with USA Today, Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló spoke about talking with Elon Musk. He affirmed that they were looking into batteries and solar panels as a long-term solution to transform energy delivery and bring down costs for the island.

The new tech infrastructure is direly needed. As The New York Times notes, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was already $9 billion in debt before the two hurricanes hit. PREPA declared itself insolvent in 2014 and ceased making debt payments, forcing a debt restructuring deal that has yet to be finalized. To make matters worse, PREPA has been at the center of a corruption scandal, making it harder to unify the public behind its mission and importance.

But, according to Puerto Rico resident Gabriel Rodriguez, tech company aid to the island has been very polarizing. In his words, “People are really for it or against it. There are the people that say that of course it’s going to be a great improvement for us… but then there’s a lot of people that are very mad because they say we are selling the island to outside interests.”

Ina Fried of Axios speculates that the American companies currently volunteering side-by-side on the island will eventually compete with each other for larger-scale rebuilding contracts. The heavy lifting won’t come free, and this is likely the source of some Puerto Rican worries.

One of the challenges of rebuilding will be to do it in a way that respects Puerto Ricans’ autonomy and independent identity. These fears of selling out to foreign interests are similar to the ones that inspired the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s that toppled Fulgencio Batista and put Fidel Castro in power.

While the two situations are not politically analogous, the tales of government corruption and fears of foreign influence are, and those U.S. companies interested in helping would do well to approach the situation with sensitivity. There is room for all parties to share in the profits and rewards that a new tech infrastructure in Puerto Rico can yield.

Chuck Hasenauer

Photo: Flickr

Bringing Power Back to Puerto RicoTowards the end of this past summer, a series of hurricanes swept across the Caribbean and Southeastern U.S., damaging communities in Houston, Miami and – in particular – Puerto Rico.

Not only was Hurricane Irma also followed by Hurricane Maria, another devastating storm, but the disaster response from the White House has been rather slow to provide relief, during a time when over one million people are struggling with – or even entirely incapable of – accessing electricity. Needless to say, bringing power back to Puerto Rico is no small task. However, Puerto Rico may have found an unlikely ally: Elon Musk’s Tesla Corporation.

Tesla is primarily famous for its manufacturing of electric cars and spaceship equipment (through its sister company, SpaceX). However, the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, has recently stated on Twitter that there may be a possibility of Tesla bringing power back to Puerto Rico. “The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too,” wrote Musk on the social media site.

But are Musk’s goals realistic, or even possible at all? According to National Geographic, a solar panel-based subsidiary of Tesla – SolarCity – managed to single-handedly switch a small island in American Samoa from diesel fuel to solar power. The island, known as Ta’u, not only managed to switch over completely to an extremely eco-friendly energy source but did so in the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane – and the solar panels in place on the island have been specially built to deal with such powerful winds and flooding.

Of course, Puerto Rico’s population of three million is far more than Ta’u’s modest population of less than 600, and therefore rebuilding the Puerto Rican infrastructure is a far greater task to undertake. Furthermore, the U.S. government has had a dubious past with intervening in Puerto Rican affairs, including early testing of birth control pills on women. Musk has, however, pointed out that any efforts made in solar power installation in Puerto Rico “must truly be led by the Puerto Rican people.”

After weeks of recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, however, Musk’s comments about not only bringing power back to Puerto Rico but reinforcing it both ecologically and structurally to withstand future storms, are ideas welcomed by many. Nevertheless, the plan is still in its embryonic stages and there is much more discussion that must take place before Tesla can spring into action.

Brad Tait

Photo: Flickr

Silicon Valley & Global Energy Poverty
Over one billion people around the world do not have reliable access to electricity. Furthermore, 2.6 billion people are reliant upon biomass to cook, which causes harmful indoor pollution. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately four million people die each year due to habitual inhalation from these toxins.

The Silicon Valley is at the apex of technological achievement and is inhabited by some of the brightest and most creative minds on the planet. There has been a mounting international appeal to Silicon Valley to use their intellectual tech brilliance for philanthropic efforts.

There has been criticism for focusing on solutions to micro problems that intend to only service the individual, as opposed to global humanitarian issues. Responsibility, however, cannot rest solely with the entrepreneurs themselves. Widespread global issues do not always necessarily lend themselves to the venture capitalist system.

Tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa notes this struggle: “Investors believe that the quickest hits come from building apps or games that go viral, or from creating websites that automate business processes. This was surely the case in the social-media era, when even children who had not completed their college education could write apps. But we’ve built enough messaging and photo-sharing apps, and have bigger opportunities now. It is possible for the young and the old to solve real problems, to great effect.”

Continents like Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, have limited access to electricity and are being viewed as a possible new frontier for tech consumption. In some parts of the continent, Africans walk miles to the nearest power grid just for a cell phone charger. Even then, because of the demand, it can take hours and it is expensive. For this reason, solar energy has recently seen a boom in usage particularly by telecom companies being funded by tech investors. The rationale is that broadening electrical access across the continent will hopefully cause a surge in mobile phone usage.

Tesla has created a Powerwall home storage 10kwh battery that is capable of powering 1,000 watts of current for 10 hours. In comparison, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates the average American household uses 1,200 watts, 24 hours per day. The battery is capable of recharging via solar or wind energy. The only downside is that the battery unit costs $4,000, which does not include installation. The average per capita income in Sub-Saharan Africa is well below $3,000, making the unit well out of most price ranges.

Nonetheless, the Powerwall home storage stands as a promising, albeit a rudimentary example of Silicon Valley creativity and ingenuity being applied for a global purpose.

Frasier Petersen

Sources: National Geographic, Huffington Post, Wadhwa, Forbes
Photo: Silicon Beat