Indonesian tin: the dirty secret behind Apple’s and Samsung’s smartphones

by Nolwenn Weiler

Apple, Blackberry, Nokia, Samsung : giants of the electronics industry ... who don’t really seem to know from where some of their raw material comes from. Tin is essential for the welds in the electronic plates of smartphones or tablets. At the other end of the production line, in the Indonesian mines of Bangka which provide 30% of the world’s tin, one person dies each week.

This article was originally published in French here. Translation : ℓу∂ιє gυĕzєηgαя.

40 : this is the number of metals contained in a smartphone. Among them: tin, which is used to make the welds. The global electronics industry uses about half of the world’s supply of this precious commodity, and its needs are constantly increasing. Because of the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and others electronic gadgets, the race for innovation, low recycling rates and the short life span of these various devices.

30% of the tin currently used in the world comes from the Indonesian island of Bangka. Where working conditions are far from the comfort brought to us by high-tech applications. According to a report by Friends of the Earth in 2012, at least one person dies every week in the Bangka’s mines. Even children are slaving away in these mines. On the environmental side, the situation is not brighter: 65% of forests are destroyed and more than 70% of the coral reefs are damaged. The pollution of rivers and of sea water has made fish disappear, forcing fishermen to give up fishing. And depriving local communities of valuable food resources.

Opacity of subcontracting

What do the major electronics brands have to say about this ? In November 2012, Friends of the Earth launched the campaign “Make IT better” asking electronics giants if they used, or not, tin from Bangka Island. Thousands of consumers have relayed their call, forcing Nokia, Sony, BlackBerry, Motorola and LG electronics to speak up. Either to admit sourcing tin from the Indonesian island, or to commit to finding ways of improving the conditions of tin extraction.

The “Make IT better” campaign also advocated for the implementation of new rules requiring companies to reveal the human and environmental costs of their sourcing methods. “The tin mining industry is an important subcontractor”, said Blackberry, adding: "The effects on the environment and health risks of this industrial sector concern us", and promising to "do everything to improve the labour conditions of Indonesians.". Nokia (soon to be acquired by Microsoft) admits it ignores who among its subcontractors sources tin from the island of Bangka. "Considering we can not ascertain whether the raw materials used to manufacture our products come from responsibly extracted resources, from a social and environmental point of view, we are working to clarify the situation on the site." The South Korean Samsung refused to communicate on the subject. Do large groups not even know where they source tin?

Apple : "dirty hands, pockets full"

Apple - 95 million iPhones sold in 2011 - remains very discreet about the origin of the tin used by its subcontractors. This opacity contrasts with the commitments of the firm’s CEO Tim Cook, who promised to make its supply chain more transparent... "Recent concerns about the illegal mining of tin from this region prompted Apple to lead a fact-finding visit to learn more (...) and to better understand the situation", reads the company’s website. A lack of transparency which led the French Friends of the Earth to nominate Apple in the "Dirty hands, pockets full" category of the Pinocchio Awards. In 2012, sales of Apple’s jumped 60%, to € 115 billion, and its profits rose by 40%. Thanks to Indonesians.