The Geopolitics of Metal Supply
Look out, Ford, General Motors, and Tesla: In a secret facility somewhere in Silicon Valley, Apple is reportedly building an iCar. It makes sense, in an Apple-centric sort of way: If Apple wants all of us to be able to safely use our iPhones while driving, why not just build a compatible car? The entire automotive industry becomes an Apple app.
Judging by the breathless reporting, there's no telling where it will stop. Perhaps Apple has opened its own SkunkWorks and will dazzle all of us one day with the iStealth - the first zero-emission, 3D-printed personal bomber.
Apple may not be ready to morph into a nation-state, but this is all heady stuff for a company that just powered past the $700 billion market cap mark and is touted by otherwise hard-boiled analysts as the odds-on favorite to be the world's first trillion-dollar company.
Yet we should marvel at the lack of attention paid to the company's Achilles' heel: The minerals and metals with which Apple makes its magic.
The more Apple rules the world, the more its fortunes rest on the weakest link in its material supply chains. iGadgets are metals-intensive. Take the typical smart phone. (Apple hasn't open-sourced its iPhone recipe just yet.) In the screen, you'll find indium, aluminum, and tin, in addition to 7 of the 17 rare earths. The battery holds lithium, graphite, manganese, and cobalt. For the electronics, you'll need copper, gold, silver, tantalum, tin, lead, arsenic, antimony, nickel, gallium, and again, a handful of rare earths. Finally, the case includes nickel, bromine, and magnesium. In all, the average smartphone contains as many as 40 elements on the Periodic Table - nearly half of the 90 elements found in nature.
It may be gram-flakes in each phone, but it all adds up: Last year, new smartphones consumed more than $2.5 billion-worth of gold and silver alone.
Apple has made heroic efforts to find out where the metals it uses come from. The company's newly released Supplier Responsibility Report, with a standalone Conflict Metals SEC filing, shows the pains Apple takes to source conflict-free metals. The company discloses a long list of its supply chain smelters and refiners, and it cuts off suppliers that don't meet conflict-free standards. But the conflict metals legislation tucked away in the 2010 Dodd-Frank omnibus act focuses on just four metals - tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold - from one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Apple knows precious little about the remainder of the 40 metals and minerals found in smartphones - how they're mined and where they come from - and no one else knows much more.
Some of them come from recycled e-waste, which sounds virtuous. After all, Jane Jacobs, the late urban activist, rhapsodized that "cities are the mines of the future" - chock full of metals and minerals we can reclaim to build the next stage of technological progress. She was right, and even now, innovative companies are showing it is possible to extract rare metals from spent electronics, coal ash, and red mud waste dumps - and to do so by environmentally benign means.
Urban mining may be the wave of the future, but the cities that are the mines of the present should be the ones that concern us. Take Guiyu, on the South China Sea coast, known as the electronic wastebasket of the world. Children as young as 3 scrabble through metal mountains of shattered flip phones, motherboards, and other assorted electronic innards. Sharply increased lead levels make their way into the food supply, and the air, dense with the chemical stew used to tease metals out of trash, literally burns visitors' nostrils. While it is illegal to export e-waste, truckloads of it somehow keep rolling into Guiyu. Not far from Guiyu, subsistence farmers trade their health for a family fortune, mucking out heavy rare earths from the local ionic clay using toxic chemicals and plastic buckets. The supply chain leads through criminal gangs past corrupt Chinese generals - Beijing regularly cracks down on illegal mining, but it persists all the same - onto the docks and ultimately into an unknown number of our smartphones. By some accounts, more than 30,000 metric tons of heavy rare earths are being smuggled out of China each year.
So what do we really know about the metals in our tech gadgets? Okay, they don't come from the conflict regions of the DRC. But are they "sourced" from the children of Guiyu? Or in pails full of heavy rare earth concentrate from poor Chinese farmers? Is the antimony in our phones fed into the global supply chain via Burmese rebels over the mountains of Myanmar? We don't know, because no one is asking. And to some extent, perhaps no one wants to know: Just make sure there's a new phone out when I'm ready for my upgrade. Our policy amounts to Don't Ask, Can't Tell.
It doesn't have to be this way. Many of the metals we need could come from new mines in the United States, where supply chains could be easily certified, and labor, environmental, and safety practices would be among the most scrutinized in the world. But the political and regulatory climate in the United States has grown more and more inhospitable for mining over the past two decades, even though the time it takes to permit a new U.S. mine already ranks near the worst in the world. And little wonder, as many of the very groups that depend on metal-laden tech-gadgets to spread their message and plan their protests are the loudest objectors to new U.S. mines of any kind.
So now we have reached the resource equivalent of the spinning "beach ball of death" that sometimes seizes our display screens. Apple and its tech-wizard wannabees hunger for row upon row of the Periodic Table, which is mostly mined or recovered anywhere but in America. And that's the way it will stay, until the United States remembers that what is made in America often depends on what is mined in America.
Until then, the newest iWhatever developed at Apple's secret SkunkWorks may be advertised in a commercial that says "Designed in California" - but will likely arrive in a box stamped "Made in China."