Cobalt, recycling and the race toward clean energy

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Cobalt has had its share of attention in the press mainly due to the tug of war between the United States and China over the ownership of cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you own a computer, a tablet or a smartphone, you probably own a little cobalt. The much-sought-after metal has become an integral part of the technology that is commonplace in our everyday lives. It is also a “continuous resource” due to its ability to be recycled. And recycling is important to the supply chain because cobalt mining comes at a cost, especially to the humans working in the mines and to the animals that reside in the forests nearby.

A little history

Cobalt is a chemical element often used for magnetic and heat-resistant alloys. For centuries, cobalt compounds have provided the bright blue color to glazes and ceramics. It has been found in ancient Egyptian statuettes, in glass discovered in the ruins of Pompeii and in Persian jewelry of the third millennium B.C. In 1742, Georg Brandt, a Swedish chemist who isolated cobalt, discovered that certain ores were blue in color because they contained this metal.

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About the demand

The Democratic Republic of Congo produces two-thirds of the global supply of cobalt. China has overtaken U.S. interests in the cobalt mines, which has set up a cobalt power competition between the two countries. China has increased its mining and refining practices, which has helped in meeting worldwide demand for cobalt. Meanwhile, the U.S. has recently boosted its position with respect to environmental challenges by passing legislation to provide a half-trillion dollars to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

Those in harm’s way

The global demand for cobalt is accompanied by a variety of concerns. Chief among these is mine safety and the danger to employees. Mining efforts also include child labor. Amnesty International and African Resources Watch are finding that traders who sell cobalt to the Chinese buy it from African mining companies that use children as young as seven as mine workers. Another concern is the exposure to dust that contains cobalt. This can produce “hard metal lung disease,” which can be fatal. In addition, the mining projects endanger the existence of animals like the peaceful okapi who live in nearby forests. 

A recyclable metal

As a non-ferrous metal, cobalt has structural integrity that does not degrade. In fact, it can be recycled again and again, hence its label as a “continuous resource.” The value of recycling items such as cell phones and computers keeps metal materials away from landfills. Recycled cobalt also reduces greenhouse gases. Due to its use in renewable energy technologies such as electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels, cobalt helps in the transitioning to a low-carbon economy. 

The road ahead

There is a growing fear that at some point in time, the primary supply of important metals like cobalt will run out and global demand will not be met. As a secondary source, recyclable cobalt will help to relieve these supply chain issues. Metal recycling is sustainable to the environment. Consequently, recycling electronics that contain cobalt is simply the responsible thing to do.