Apple to avoid the cobalt blues

Company promises to use 100% recycled cobalt by 2025.

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A “cobalt blue,” glass pitcher set.

Before it was vital for the production of lithium batteries, cobalt was primarily used to produce a vibrant color known as “cobalt blue,” such as in this glass pitcher set.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“Do they recycle cobalt?”

Leave it to my wife to cut through the clutter.

“Umm ...” I replied.

Opinion bug

Opinion

Dozens of reader emails last week focused on the me-me-me flea circus drama of my column about backing out of a humanitarian trip to Congo. (For the record, my wife supported both when I was going — “You’re helping people,” she said, plainly and with a touch of wonder — and when I wasn’t. “Smart,” she concluded).

Her follow-up reaction, in trademark fashion, zeroed in on the moral issue — children mining cobalt by hand in the Democratic Republic of Congo, source of 70% of the world’s supply of an element essential in the production of rechargeable lithium batteries.

A few readers airily wished something could be done (the “but of course it can’t!” breathed in a Scarlett O’Hara sigh while collapsing on a mental chaise lounge of resignation was implied), while my wife identified the solution: Recycle the cobalt. She then posed the relevant question: Can it be done?

I consulted Prof. Google. Why yes, it can.

Turns out not only can the cobalt in lithium batteries be recycled, but a certain Apple Inc., a few days earlier, had pounded its corporate fist on its global desk and announced that, by God, it would do just that, in an April 13 press release titled: “Apple will use 100 percent recycled cobalt in batteries by 2025.”

Apple is well on the way. Over the past three years, the company said, it has “significantly expanded” use of recycled cobalt — in 2022, a quarter of the cobalt found in Apple products came from recycled materials, almost double the amount in the previous year.

Congratulations seem in order, so I tracked down a representative from Apple’s environmental division to chat about the details, which, as we all know, are where the devil resides.

He would only speak “on background.” That seemed a bit Secret Squirrel for such good news. But OK. I wanted to square Apple’s lofty goals with the predictions that, between smartphones going into every human palm and the burgeoning electric car industry, there won’t be enough cobalt to go around, particularly if you limit yourself to factory scrap and old batteries.

Nature magazine assessed the situation and concluded that “a cobalt shortage between 2028 and 2033 appears inevitable.”

Other phone companies are rushing to follow Apple, which seems confident that “Daisy,” its custom robot that breaks apart iPhones for recycling purposes, will be up to the task.

There are other concerns. Africans don’t send their children in to dig cobalt for a dollar a day because their lives are teeming with options. While pulling out of the cobalt mining supply chain removes Apple from moral responsibility, sort of, it doesn’t help the miners who lose their jobs.

Apple promised that ceasing to buy cobalt from Congo won’t end its interest there.

“As Apple reduces its reliance on newly mined minerals, it is also pursuing ways to directly support communities whose livelihoods depend on mining,” the release trumpeted. “The company is partnering with experts such as the Fund for Global Human Rights to provide support for frontline human rights and environmental defenders ... as well as vocational education programs that enable members of local communities moving away from mining to build skills and pursue new opportunities.”

Well, problem solved. If I seem extra cynical today, it’s because Congo has been steadily abused by industrialized powers from Belgium over a century ago to Chinese mining companies today. Not to forget its own corrupt government and chaotic internecine warfare. Global corporations are much better at sanding their fingerprints off problems than they are at solving them. Apple shared its 97-page “People and Environment in Our Supply Chain” report, a slick document filled with warm photographs, inspirational quotes and helpful bar charts. One sentence popped out: “There were zero findings of underage labor in our supply chain in the 2022 reporting period.”

Which makes one wonder ... is that because there weren’t any? Or because Apple just didn’t see it?

I’ve been an Apple fan back to my first iPod, a sleek aluminum lozenge I’d show off and announce, “This makes me proud to be a human being.” And the company certainly talks the talk. “We need to shift entire industries to a new way of doing business,” it declares in its “Material Impact Profile” white paper.

But some problems, not even Apple can fix.

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