SMELT YOU LATER: Apple announces conflict-free status

Only does biz with decent metal suppliers ... expensive NGO plans not needed

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Comment Apple has announced that it is now at least partially conflict-mineral-free after confirming that its suppliers use only ethically sourced tantalum.

This follows hot on the heels of Intel announcing that they've achieved the same feat. While it's not a perfect result, it is an advance in civilisation and doing the right thing.

What are 'conflict' minerals?

As background, the ores of the eastern parts of the Congo are so rich, so close to the surface, that it's possible to mine them using women and children as slaves. Given the lawlessness in the war-torn area, which allows bloodthirsty and greedy bastards to do their odious worst, this does indeed happen: and we'd rather like it not to. The problem with simply boycotting the whole area is that there are some artisanal (technical jargon for bucket-and-shovel operations) mines there which are not run in that manner and we don't want to throw 100,000 people or whatever out of work just to get at the bandits.

There has thus been a campaign to try to sort this out and long-term readers will recall that I've written here on this subject a number of times. My point is that while the goal is desirable, there have been two different attempts at achieving it. One was designed by various NGOs and is now law and the other does the same job at a miniscule fraction of the cost.

Two options

The NGO-designed one (here's lookin' at you, Global Witness and the Enough Project) is now law as part of conflict mineral prevention clauses written into the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. These require every listed US company to ask all of its suppliers to check and see if they're using any of these conflict minerals, those ores dug up by the slaves at the prompting of the bandits.

If they are then said companies must tell people in their annual reports. Even the SEC, which is running this operation, thinks that this is going to cost $3 to $4bn in just the first year. Would probably have been cheaper to send in a Marine Corps to kill the bandits really.

The second method was one dreamt up by people actually in the industry and one that I've described here before. The ores that are being processed are not something that you can casually do so in a clearing in the jungle (well, mostly, which we'll come to). For tantalum, for example, there are only 20 factories capable of doing the job and yes, it would be a very major operation to try and do this outside such a plant without killing everyone trying to do it.

There was also work undertaken by the BGR (the German government mineral boffins, good blokes, very boffiny) to build a database of the trace elements in tantalum minerals from each mine site. These traces act as a good enough fingerprint that you can analyse for them and then tell which mine each lot of ore came from. They've done the same for tungsten although there are rather more plants that can process these ores, and ditto for tin.

Given that you are always going to analyse the ore before stuffing it into your processing plant we can then construct a system whereby each lot is analysed. (Quite apart from anything else, you will be analysing it anyway so so that you can pay the correct amount for it, all these ores are paid for on the basis of the percentage of the main metal ingredient per pound – tantalum pentoxide Ta2O5, for example). In this way, those ores which originate from bandit mines get rejected and we've solved our problem. This is both effective and cheap to implement.

It isn't, sadly, immediate though. Significant work has to go into this. And there's one more problem: the electronics industry is the major consumer of tantalum and very much a minor one in tin, tungsten and gold. So Apple's power to force the smelters to reject bandit ore is rather larger in tantalum than elsewhere.

Which is why they say that they have indeed solved the tantalum problem already but not the others so far. And if we are to be frank about it, no one will ever solve the tin and gold problems. The technology to separate both from their ores is just too simple, by definition the first is a Bronze Age one in fact. Something that can be done in a clearing in the jungle and then the crude metal slipped into the world's metal recycling systems.

Here's what Apple itself says:

In January 2014, we confirmed that all active, identified tantalum smelters in Apple's supply chain were validated as conflict free by third party auditors, and we will continue to require all suppliers to use only verified tantalum sources.

This is being run through the Conflict-Free Smelter Program (CFSP) which is based upon testing minerals as they arrive against that BGR database.

That is, it is so far at least completely ignoring the vastly expensive and rather silly plans dreamt up by the NGOs and enacted into law and getting on with solving the problem in an effective manner.

How unlike engineers to do that, eh? No doubt they will also have to fill out the forms required under Dodd-Frank although there is at least a bit of controversy over that. You have to actually be a manufacturer of something to have to make the disclosure. Using someone else's off-the-shelf part does not require it: and who here thinks that Apple makes its own solder, or capacitors? Or even designs them? Actually, who thinks that Apple actually manufactures anything at all?

One last little bundle of joy. Global Witness, happy in the knowledge that the expensive system no one is using has been inflicted upon the US is now campaigning to have it enacted over here.

It would like every EU company (not just large listed ones as over there) to ask each and every one of its suppliers to fill out a form. Surely, now that we're seeing how this problem is being solved by intelligent adults in the real world, we should, if we're going to adopt any statutory system at all, adopt the one that both works and is cheaper? You know, the one that both Apple and Intel are using? ®

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