Social and environmental responsibility in metals supply to the electronic industry

This report was created so that organisations can understand how aluminum, cobalt, copper, gold, palladium and tin are mined, recycled, purchased

This study was commissioned by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC). The overall objective was to help these organizations understand how aluminum, cobalt, copper, gold, palladium and tin are mined, recycled, purchased and where they are used in electronics products. Based on the study’s findings, conclusions are drawn and recommendations are made on whether and how the members of these organizations can effectively influence social and environmental issues associated with production of metals used in electronic products.
The methods encompassed an extensive literature review, interviews and personal correspondence. A limitation to this study is that much of the information and data reviewed was not specific in its definition of “electronics.” Thus, for the purposes of this report, electronics are defined broadly and cover a wide spectrum of devices and equipment, including consumer electronic products, industrial devices, as well as components embedded in other products like automobiles and household appliances.
The types and amounts of metals in electronics products vary from product to product, from brand to brand, and also change as technologies evolve. This, coupled with the lack of precise tracking of metal use across sectors, makes it challenging to provide an accurate estimate of the fraction of metal supply going into electronics. By making certain assumptions, as detailed in this report, the electronic industry was estimated to use, as a fraction of global annual metal supply, a maximum of 36% of tin, 25% of cobalt, 15% of palladium, 9% of gold, 2% of copper, and 1% of aluminum.
The metals of interest in this report are commodities traded globally. The majority of trade is executed through direct contracts between sellers and buyers, with prices established in reference to those set on commodity exchanges. A small but important fraction is traded through commodity exchanges, such as the London Metal Exchange, where future pricing allows for management of risks associated with supply and demand. The buyer-seller relationship depends on commercial conditions, wherein neither party may be prepared to divulge details of commercial transactions.
Metals are sourced from both the earth, though mining, and from the existing economy, via recycled production. Both sources may also be mixed together within the global pool of a metal commodity. Metals are shipped around the world in a variety of forms, including ore, mineral concentrates, crude metal, refined metal, alloys, semi-fabricated metal, manufactured products and scrap metal. Each producer at each stage of production may mix different flows from different sources, depending on economics and availability. Given these patterns and the present lack of stewardship schemes, it is difficult to clearly track the physical flows and trade of metals through the market. Further investigation is needed to reveal a more quantitative understanding of metal delivered through exchanges compared to those going through the direct market, particularly in the context of responsible supply chain management. It is expected that volumes
traded will vary from commodity to commodity, from year to year, and will depend on market influences like economic prognosis, investor behavior, supply disruptions, and shifts in manufacturing demand.
The annual supply of metals come from mining, inventories (e.g., investment stockpiles), and recycled production. Some metals, such as gold, are mined in more than 75 countries, whereas others, such as tin and palladium, have a more concentrated geographic source. For some metals, such as cobalt, aluminum and copper, the loci of metal mining differ significantly from the loci of metal processing (including smelting and refining). Approximately 150 of the major companies control 83% of mined value. Companies vary from large multinational corporations with dozens of sites, to state-owned firms that focus on production of one or a few metals from a country’s mineral reserves, to intermediate-sized producers with only one or two mines.
Additionally, there are artisanal and small-scale miners that operate manual and informal operations at a much smaller scale.
Despite this diversity in locations, it was possible to identify fifteen countries that account for the majority of the current mine production associated with these metals, with about half of these being among the top producers of three or more of the metals addressed here. Some countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Chile, are especially important because of their high contribution to the global supply of cobalt and copper, respectively. Australia, Canada, China, Indonesia and Russia are relevant because they have both a diverse and intense level of primary metal production. To identify precise mine locations for each of these metals is possible, but was out of the scope of this study.
The profile of mining and sources of metal is further complicated in cases where the proportion of artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) is high, as for gold (20 to 25% of global production) and tin (approximately 50%). Generally characterized by manual extraction with simple tools and equipment, and little or no management controls, ASM is poverty-driven, being a very desirable livelihood where there are few other options. It is frequently an illegal or informal activity within a national economy.

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