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TLDR: the societal and environmental costs of lithium batteries

Lithium batteries are a huge part of our technological advancements making our lives better – let’s talk about what it costs to produce.

A charging device with solar panels, powered by lithium batteries, sits plugged in on a table.

Lithium batteries are purported as the better choice over traditional alkaline batteries. You’ll pay more for a lithium battery upfront, but you’ll also get more life out of it. Lithium batteries power our electronics, smartphones, EVs, appliances and more. Economically and environmentally, lithium batteries make sense. The rhetoric is that we’re making the world a better place. Until you learn that lithium batteries have a disturbing social and environmental cost that often goes unsaid. 

The raw materials of a lithium battery 

The raw materials used in manufacturing Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are lithium, graphite, cobalt, and manganese. While each of these materials comes with an environmental cost, manganese and graphite are less controversial than lithium and cobalt. 

Manganese is mined in open pits. It is an abundant mineral. For the most part, it’s ethically mined – safely, cost-effectively, and environmentally friendly. That said, there are still some complaints about manganese mining. 

Graphite is mined fairly responsibly, too. The bigger complaint with graphite and its impact on the environment is in how it’s processed. Graphite for batteries must be very pure. Many manufacturers are trying to process graphite to be more eco-friendly while ensuring that the graphite is ethically sourced and produced. 

Lithium is pretty controversial all by itself

Lithium, the main ingredient of LIBs has a list of complaints against it.  Lithium mining takes a lot of water. Extracting 2000 pounds of lithium takes about 132,000 gallons of water. This water can then poison reservoirs and destroy the local ecosystem. Miners are often mistreated and underpaid for their contributions. One report found that most lithium mining companies have poor human rights records.  

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Most of the lithium mined today comes from Australia, Chile, and China. LIBs may be better for the environment than traditional alkaline batteries, but that cost comes with a manufacturing price tag that few people take into consideration. Lithium is only mined in one mine in the United States, in Nevada, even though our country has many reserves. Most communities don’t want to allow lithium mining because of its social and environmental impacts. But the US is one of the biggest users of lithium batteries, due to our dependence on our electronics. 

Cobalt – chemical element 27 

Cobalt is a metal found in the earth’s crust. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) produces about 70% of the world’s supply of cobalt, but it is also mined in Russia, Australia, Canada, and The Philippines. 

On January 31, Siddharth Kara’s book, “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives” was released. Kara exposes the cobalt mining industry in the Congo. It’s linked to many human rights abuses, including child labor. In the DRC, much of the cobalt produced is sourced from existing copper mines. While this source of cobalt has its controversies, it does significantly impact the environment, the real problem in cobalt sourcing is artisanal mining. 

Artisanal mining and cobalt 

About 15% of the cobalt is produced from what is called “artisanal” mining. Miners actually hand-dig the ore instead of extracting it through mechanical means. It’s labor intensive, but laborers earn less than $10US per day. In a country where most people earn less than $2US per day, it can seem like an economic incentive, but the conditions are horrendous. Miners in these small mines have many health issues from accidents in the mines themselves to exposure to toxic gases and radioactive minerals. Kara says, these workers are “freelance miners,” they’re essentially “working in subhuman, grinding, degrading conditions.” Some liken artisanal mining to slavery. 

Artisanal mining doesn’t just impact miners 

Not only has the landscape of the DRC been ravaged, residents of the DRC are breathing in cobalt dust on a daily basis. Young children and babies, mothers and fathers, whether they are miners or not, live in conditions contaminated by cobalt mining. According to the CDC, exposure to cobalt may cause cancer. In the US, workers at risk of cobalt exposure have strict controls. In the DRC, artisanal miners and residents of the community do not have that option. The system is appalling, and yet, this isn’t something regularly discussed on the nightly news or over the water cooler. 

How is the industry addressing cobalt use in batteries? 

Last year, Tesla announced that many of their cars were already using cobalt-free batteries. The U.S. Department of Energy has committed to R&D for cobalt-free batteries. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Cobalt-free batteries are being studied by research labs across the country, in colleges and in manufacturers of electronic devices. There are dozens of start-ups focusing on cobalt-free batteries as well. It’s about finding the right combination of materials to replace cobalt for different applications. The industry understands the problem and wants to find better solutions. 

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What can be done about cobalt use? 

Kara says that the supply chain is broken. Cobalt is an important part of making our world better, but we have to take into consideration the payoffs for our first world amenities. Reducing our dependance on cobalt may take a complete shift in customer behavior. Much like the fashion industry is more aware of how clothes are made and by who, consumers must be made aware of how their devices and components are manufactured to put pressure on manufacturers.  Consumer demand often drives changes to the supply chain.  

Shifting how we think about what we buy 

Sure, we can feel better by using lithium batteries, but when we dig deeper into the realities of the social cost of these items, are we really doing better for our world?  Do lithium and cobalt have greater environmental and human costs than the petroleum gasoline that we’re trying to replace? Ethical consumerism is about spending your money on your values. If we value human life, how can we keep putting money into cobalt batteries? Why aren’t we putting pressure on manufacturers to make ethical products? Just something to think about as you buy your next laptop or an EV.

Resources to learn more:

Dawn Brotherton is a Sr. Staff Writer at The American Genius with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Oklahoma. She is an experienced business writer with over 10 years of experience in SEO and content creation. Since 2017, she has earned $60K+ in grant writing for a local community center, which assists disadvantaged adults in the area.


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