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The Impact of Gadgets on People and the Planet

When it comes to gadgets, even environmental zealots tend to forget that everything we buy new comes from raw materials and therefore leaves a hole in the planet. While recycled items are a better option, they require energy to be produced and unless the company in question has a thorough green policy, that energy has probably come from oil or gas, the extraction of which has also left a hole in the planet.

How much do you know about the materials that are needed to fuel our love-affair of gadgets? The electronics industry is a rapidly growing market worldwide, and upgrading to new styles and models is the coolest thing you can do. Most people do not consider the impacts of their techno-purchases on the environment or the people who make them, but the damage they cause is significant and, for some people, deadly.

The Human Impact

Bangka Island lies east of Indonesia and is home to the world’s tin mining industry. For centuries the island has been one of the world’s principal tin-producing centres. On-shore miners dig and search underground tunnels for veins of cassiterite, the principal dark mineral of tin ore, which is turned into solder and used by the electronics industry to bind components in gadgets. Solder is used in smartphones, flat-screen televisions, and tablet computers such as the iPad, which are popular in countries like the US and UK.  In fact, U.K.-based industry trade group Henkel states that the solder in an iPad or a competing tablet can be as much as 3 grams, which means that 5 iPads use as much tin solder as an average single car.

Thousands of Indonesians are required to work on Bangka Island to extract the tin required to make solder, and it is hard work, undertaken without machines and aided only by hoes and pickaxes. Tin is highly profitable for big business but for the local people who have to dig it up, it come with a higher cost. Human lives are lost due to problems associated with mining such as mudslides and mines collapsing, and statistics show that deaths of Bangka miners are increasing yearly as demand for tin grows alongside our love of cool new gadgets. Miners are often buried alive and it takes large teams and a huge amount of effort to recover their bodies from the rubble, but no one is compensated by the companies that profit from the mining.

As is often the case in regions where work is scarce, labour issues also darken the tin mining industry. Aside from the obvious risks involved with tin mining, there are reports of little induction into the industry, with potentially unskilled workers given little or no training on safety issues. Regulations are lax and workers being overworked and mistreated. Similarly, miners are not provided for financially if they suffer injuries while mining, and their families do not receive financial compensation or benefits when sole breadwinners’ lives are lost. There are allegations of miner workers being paid wages as low as $5 a day.

The industry also destroys local communities, as the people damage their own land in order to scratch a living. They lose their own livelihoods due to the profitability of the tin mines, while none of that profit stays in their area of the world. The fishing industry has been damaged by mining on the island’s coasts; to Indonesians the ocean miners are known as ‘floating poachers’, who arrive in thousands and mine the waters that companies have bought exclusive rights to. The environmental impact of mining the waters has forced fishermen to leave behind their livelihoods and enter the tin mining industry so that they can continue to feed their families.

The Environmental Impact

In off-shore mining, machines known as dredges scourge the oceans using pumps to suck up ore, which releases sediment such as tin into the waters, and naturally captured gases such as carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. As well as the death of the local fishing industry, the tourist trade has also been diminished due to increasingly polluted seas surrounded the mining islands, and pockmarked and polluted land. The major mining company Timah obtains more than 54 percent of its tin from the sea. Local fishermen say that much of the off-shore mining that takes place is actually illegal, as there is a prohibition on mining in waters within 4 miles of Bangka’s shore, but that laws protecting native peoples are not enforced where big business is involved.

The true scale of the pollution caused by off-shore mining around Bangka Island is as of yet unknown. Reza Muftiadi, a lecturer in the fisheries department at Bangka-Belitung University, studies reefs around Bangka Island and photographs their deteriorating states. He reports that they are being buried by the sediment that is released by mining dredgers, which may have a catastrophic effect on the local environment.

The tin mining industry has also made a visible mark on the island’s landscape. There are pits all over Bangka Island, some as large as 800 feet wide. There are gaping holes in full view of public venues, including the island’s largest hospital. Rubber trees, palm trees and other native plant species are cleared from mining land and then left without room to grow due to the vast craters that blot and swallow up the landscape. The mines are dusty eyesores that are also increasing the amount of pollution that occurs on land.

When local people have tried to question the environmental damage that mining companies and independent refiners are causing to their land, those in charge have dismissed claims, avoided giving answers, and tried to blame on each other instead of taking responsibility for their own actions. Companies are not held accountable for employees’ deaths or for the ecological impact caused by the mines. Nor do the companies provide life insurance in case of death, compensation to miners who suffer injuries at work, or financial recompense for the families who lose their family members breadwinners.

Who’s to Blame?

Indonesia exports almost all of its tin, and according to government figures over 90 percent of it comes from the Bangka-Belitung province. Tin ore from Bangka Island and the surrounding areas is used in vast numbers of electronic products sold by large corporations, and the solder used to make them is impossible to distinguish from less damaging sources in the global supply chain. The UK-based Cookson Group puts solder consumption down to three products: smartphones, tablets, and Internet data servers. The finger therefore points at large electronics corporations and their consumers.

Tin from dangerous mines inevitably finds its way into leading brand electronic companies, including Foxconn Technology Group which is the largest manufacturer for Apple and other companies. Tin is the most common metal used by Apple suppliers. The corporate giant has admitted that its solder has been traced to 58 of the world’s tin refiners, but spokesman Steve Dowling declined to share the information when asked to name the sources.

Tin mining in Bangka Island and its neighbouring regions is controlled by the mining companies Timah and Koba. The Indonesian government owns 65 per cent of Timah, which explains why laws on off-shore mining are not enforced on Bangka Island, and why human rights and environmental issues are ignored.

The largest solder makers in Asia are Shenmao Technology and Chernan Metal. They also supply Foxconn Technology Group with tin, and they admit that all the tin they buy comes from Indonesia. Amongst its clients Chernan lists popular brand names in western nations including Panasonic, Sony, and Samsung Electronics. Other solder makers refuse to say where they source their tin from.

Indium Henkel, Metallic Resources, and Cookson are huge players in the global solder industry and they have openly recognised the problems associated with illegal tin mining. However when Indonesian authorities stepped in to curb the problem, the price of tin increased, and following this the Solder Products Value Council issued a public statement in 2007 accusing the stricter Indonesian export regulations of ‘driving the Assembly Electronics supply chain to yet another dangerously low level of profitability.’ Unsurprisingly, companies with vested interests in the tin mining industry are not keen to speak out against the harm it causes ecologically and for the people working in and living near the mines, as this might lead to a decline in company profits.

What Can We Do?

Reduce your reliance on gadgets. As with issues such as palm oil and plastic bags, the power in the tin mining industry lies with the consumer. For the industry to become less powerful, people have to start questioning the materials used to make their gadgets, where they are sourced from and using what means. We also need to boycott electronics companies as much as possible, by replacing current gadgets only when it is really necessary to, buying second hand goods wherever possible, and repairing broken gadgets instead of replacing them. There is not much of a market for replacing broken parts of electronic devices, as the current trend is to continuously upgrade to new models, however this will change if we demand it.

Hold corporations accountable by contacting electronics companies. Email CEOs wherever possible. Ask to know where they source their tin from, what they are doing to minimise the damage caused by this industry to people and the planet, and what they will do to start ensuring that their tin does not come from illegal sources.

Spread the word about tin mining in the Bangka Island region. Use your blog, twitter and other media and networking sites to tell people about the unethical tin mining industry. Local actions have been taking place in tin mining countries, but media coverage of these protests has been scarce. In May this year a group of fishermen marched to the gates of Timah’s headquarters in Pangkal Pinang to speak out against infringements of their rights and livelihoods caused by the tin mining industry. By spreading the word their voices will be heard.

Vote here to demand that independent smelters and the mining companies pay a share of their revenues into a fund for people living in the mined areas. This fund should be overseen by an independent group and it should provide insurance for miners who are killed or injured, and to undo some of the environmental damage that has already occurred.

Vote with your wallet. Look for ethical companies and pay the extra dollar for their products, which will help to keep them in business. Remember, there is a hidden cost in the electronics industry, which is destroying communities, people’s livelihoods and families, and leaving huge holes in the planet. None of which is even remotely cool.

Image Source: WizardJournal/Flickr