Sustainable Electronics Initiative

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The Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) is dedicated to the development and implementation of a more sustainable system for designing, producing, using, and managing electronic devices.

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Amnesty International Shines a Spotlight on Cobalt Supply Chains

amnestylogoIn case you missed it, a new report by Amnesty International has been making headlines as it ties child labor and unsafe working conditions to electronics manufacturing supply chains. See for example, “Children as young as seven mining cobalt used in smartphones, Amnesty says” (Annie Kelly for The Guardian, 1/18/16) and “Your Smartphone May Be Linked to Child Labor” (Jan Lee for Triple Pundit, 1/21/16).

According to the report, over half the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and 20% of that is from artisanal mines where young children may be involved in unsafe practices exposing them to high levels of cobalt. From the Triple Pundit article linked to above, ‘“As with adult miners,” Amnesty International corroborated, “they were exposed to high levels of cobalt on a consistent basis, but did not even have gloves or face masks to wear.” In most cases, the authors pointed out, the financial gain of their work was nominal: “[The children reported] they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads, to earn between one and two dollars a day.”’

Cobalt has a number of industrial applications, including widespread use in lithium ion battery cathodes. These batteries are used in hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as in our ubiquitous portable electronic devices, such as cell phones, laptops, tablets, digital cameras, and handheld games. While cobalt is an essential element in small quantities (it’s a component of vitamin B12), high levels of exposure may have adverse effects on the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, and cause dermal, hematological, and immunological effects (see http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp33-c2.pdf).

The full report may be downloaded from the Amnesty International web site in English, Chinese, or French (PDF Format; 88 pages). According to the site: “This report documents the hazardous conditions in which artisanal miners, including thousands of children, mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It goes on to trace how this cobalt is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices. Using basic hand tools, miners dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground, and accidents are common. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure to cobalt, adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment. This report is the first comprehensive account of how cobalt enters the supply chain of many of the world’s leading brands.”

You can also check out the Amnesty International video below:

New ISTC Publication: “Reducing E-Waste Through Purchasing Decisions”

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), host agency for the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI), recently announced the publication of a new research report (TR-061): “Reducing E-Waste Through Purchasing Decisions.” Delta Institute Logo

This research was conducted by the Delta Institute of Chicago, IL, with funding from ISTC’s sponsored research program.

Abstract: “Purchasing decisions made by companies for electronic office equipment, such as computers, printers, and fax machines, are often not made with the equipment end-of-life disposition in mind. Purchasing agents develop technical specifications for office equipment and make final purchasing decisions based on the needs of their users. The end result is that final disposition of this electronic waste, or e-waste, may sometimes be through the trash or through unchecked third party disposal companies which increases the potential for contaminants to enter the environment.

The Delta Institute, in consultation with the Green Electronics Council (GEC) – the program manager for the EPEAT® program – and the University of Illinois Survey Research Laboratory (SRL), worked on the project, Reducing E-waste through Purchasing Decisions, to identify opportunities and barriers for purchasing agents to include end-of-life decisions in the purchasing process and for asset managers to practice responsible recycling. Delta used a survey process, company interviews, and live and videotaped presentations with private companies to identify barriers and test strategies that can be used by private company purchasing agents and asset managers to facilitate recycling of electronic equipment.

Delta concluded that by far the two most prevalent and widespread barriers to using best management practices for purchasing and recycling of electronics were (1) a lack of awareness around electronics purchasing and recycling certifications and registries, and (2) persistent negative perceptions around electronic certifications and registries. Delta beta-tested on company representatives the effectiveness of two delivery methods designed to raise awareness and remove negative perceptions: a live educational presentation and a videotaped webinar. Results from the taped webinar were inconclusive. However, responses from the live presentation suggested that the presentation was successful at raising awareness and dispelling negative perceptions about electronics registrations and certifications to encourage their use. While it is hoped and anticipated that removal of these barriers led to increased recycling of electronics in participating companies, verification was beyond the scope of this study.”

For more ISTC publications, see http://www.istc.illinois.edu/info/library_clearinghouse.cfmISTC logo

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