The bad side of batteries


Elena Brown

E.D. Morel, a British journalist famous for bringing the abuse of the Congolese people by the Belgians, the former rulers of the DRC, to the public eye, described the Congo as “a gigantic slave-farm reeking with cruelty.”

Elena Brown, Managing Editor of Student Life

As car companies work to “go green” by producing electric vehicles, a trail of destruction is left behind in their path. The people at the bottom of the supply chain, the brawn, continue to receive very little payment from this billion-dollar industry. They suffer harsh working conditions, such as toxicity, and are in many ways, modern-day slaves. 

These people work to mine cobalt, one of the main components in lithium batteries. Lithium batteries are what allow devices such as phones and electric vehicles to be rechargeable. They are found in just about everything, from cameras to watches.

About 70% of the world’s cobalt can be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo according to Investing News Network. The DRC is also filled with various other valuable metals, however, the people here are far from rich as corporations in China and the United States continue to exploit them and their land.

The DRC’s national budget in 2021 was 7.2 billion, which is about equal to Idaho’s national budget. However, the DRC has 50 times the population of Idaho, with ¾ of the population living below the poverty line. 

This is because the citizens of the DRC on average earn $1 to $2 a day. This averages out to about $400 a year, which in comparison to the $60,575 salary of the average American in 2021 according to the Social Security Administration, is extremely small.

These people who work far below minimum wage are called artisanal miners. This means that they do not have an official contract with mining companies. They typically work on land sanctioned for them next to the big industrial mines. 

Here, they work from sunrise to sunset harvesting heterogenite, a mineral that contains cobalt. While digging, miners are exposed to toxic chemicals. The urine of an artisanal miner contains 40 times the amount of cobalt than the average person according to Germain, a researcher at the University of Lubumbashi who shared this with Siddharth Kara, the author of, “Cobalt Red: How the blood of the Congo powers our lives” Their urine also has a high amount of other toxic metals, such as uranium. 

As a result of the toxicity and grueling work, the average life expectancy in the DRC is 60.7 years, which pales in comparison to the U.S. life expectancy of 79.21 years. Children born in the DRC are also more likely to have birth defects. Cancer is also a common occurrence as a result of toxic exposure.

There are a few different solutions possible for this vast problem. The obvious choice is to stop buying batteries that contain cobalt. However, a battery of this type will not be available for about another decade and will also come with some serious cons, such as a shorter battery life.

Even if a cobalt-free battery could be produced, the miners in the DRC suffering will not stop. Due to the high concentration of valuable metals here, there will most likely be another mining company that comes in to exploit the land.

Another solution would be to invest in the DRC’s future. Currently, Elon Musk is building a city in Texas to provide cheap housing for his Tesla and Space X employees. If he instead built a town in the DRC for the employees who produce the batteries that are at the core of his entire company, their entire lives could be changed. 

This is because, at the moment, it costs a family $5 to $6 a month to send one child to school. While this price may seem small, for Congolese citizens, this price is unimaginable. Not to mention the fact that families often have multiple children and these children are needed in the mines for valuable income. Building schools provides free education for these children leading to a better future.

However, currently, the DRC’s cobalt reserves will last another 40, maybe 50 years. The Paris Agreement calls for at least 100 million electric vehicles (EVs), which will take millions of tons of cobalt. When the cobalt runs out, the entire EV industry will come to a shocking halt.

When this happens, the people of the DRC will be without jobs. For the most part, they are uneducated which means they will have no jobs when the cobalt runs out, leading to life even more dismal than the life they have now. In the words of a Congolese miner in Kara’s book, “Here it is better not to be born.”