𝘕𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘮𝘣𝘦𝘳 23, 2021
On a whim during my senior year in High School I took a pottery course to fill an “arts” requirement. To my pleasant surprise it became one of my favorite classes. During the semester we were taught to make slab pots, coil pots, and finally wheel thrown pots. I received praise from the teacher for my innate ability to throw a pot on the wheel on my very first attempt. Praise gets you every time and I was hooked. I made most of that that year’s Christmas presents out of pottery and ended up spending most of my time the rest of the year working in his pottery class. When I helped my sister with mom’s final downsizing last month, I noticed several pots I made were being passed along to me, including a failed slab pot that had split during firing. The pot was fired with one of my favorite glazes, a cobalt blue. When I unpacked it, Melissa wanted it, so it now adorns our house.
One of the trending stories on my NY Times news feeds told how cobalt is going to be a key for our eco-friendly future. Cobalt is used in medicine for imaging, cancer radiotherapy and sterilizing medical equipment. It is in the rechargeable batteries in smartphones and laptops, and it is a component of the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles and store energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources. This gives cobalt an essential role in the transition from fossil fuels to green energy. One report predicts the global demand for cobalt will increase 60% above 2017 levels by 2025. It is projected that batteries will make up more than half of that use.
When I looked online for information on cobalt, I came across an article by Bianca Nogrady for the online news source ENSIA written on May 14, 2020. Nogrady reported that as interest in cobalt has grown, so has interest in ensuring that it is ethically produced, minimizing harm to the people who mine it and the environment from which it’s removed. The problem is people die for this mineral. Some 60% of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where nearly three-quarters of citizens live in extreme poverty. Around one-fifth of cobalt mined in the DRC comes from small-scale artisanal mines worked by children as young as seven years old. The miners work without gloves to protect them from contact dermatitis while breathing cobalt-laden dust that is associated with a potentially fatal lung disease. Most mines have unsafe tunnels that are liable to collapse and bury the miners. All this occurs in settings that are prone to violence and sexual exploitation. The mines are also the sole livelihood of the hundreds of families who work them.
𝗧𝗵𝗼𝘂𝗴𝗵𝘁𝘀: Alternatives to cobalt have been explored to curtail the human rights abuses associated with mining. Several companies are looking at ways to recycle the cobalt from batteries to reduce the amount of new material needed. Others have used expended car batteries as viable storage cells for other forms of renewable energy like wind and solar. A third alternative is to stop using cobalt all together. Research has found that no transition mineral is perfect; lithium, manganese, nickel, and zinc are all associated with human rights violations. And to shun cobalt altogether would mean denying a valuable source of income to people who desperately need it. What we need to do is acknowledged the existing environmental and human rights concerns, and then find ways to work toward an amicable solution. Do the work. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.