Words: Anni Rastas & Emilia Linnekoski
Multidisciplinary discussion and collaboration are necessary for the building of an ecologically and socially sustainable society. The complex global issues of today’s world raise questions which are hard to answer alone. In this article, Emilia Linnekoski and Anni Rastas, studying in the School of Social Science in the University of Helsinki, look for clarification in regards to the challenges of achieving a sustainable society from the perspective of mineral development and sustainable technology. In particular, the development of powerful batteries made from recycled materials is one opportunity, but also a challenge, in the transition towards a circular economy.
The current news in Finnish media on the mining of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as Anni’s interest in studying minerals in an anthropological thesis – provided the inspiration for this article. As social scientists, we were instantaneously alerted to the consideration of the political and social aspects surrounding the extraction of minerals. But what, in fact, are the minerals inside batteries and where is the development of recycled batteries going? We wanted to know more about these minerals, and so interviewed Marja Rinne, a post-graduate student from Aalto University’s hydrometallurgy and corrosion research group, lead by Mari Lundström.
Hydromet research group aims at finding sustainable solutions and supporting the recycling and re-use of minerals. Rinne is currently examining the environmental effects of the production and recycling of battery minerals, utilising a lifecycle analysis approach to do so.
The future trajectory seems to suggest, that the need of battery minerals, such as cobalt and lithium, will increase significantly. The use of electric cars is growing, and these minerals are also common in the more sustainable energy production systems. Already, the everyday lives of Finnish people are filled with such minerals. You are also, most likely, reading this article on your laptop or smartphone, inside of which are hidden materials that originate from a place unknown to you. Your smartphone is, for example, made out of a variety of minerals such as aluminium, iron, copper, gold, cobalt and lithium. The packaging however does not tell you where these minerals are from, or when and how they were mined.
The extraction of minerals causes deep and complex eco-social issues in many local communities that suffer from the contamination of waterways and whose land- and self-determination rights are often disregarded by international corporations (Jacka 2018). Answers for the grave problems arising from the increasing extraction of new materials are thus looked for from as efficient re-useof minerals as can be possible.
As stated, with the increase of carbon neutral transportation, the need for battery minerals grows, as Rinne elaborates: “The batteries needed for electric cars are very large and there will be a lot of them in the future. If their recycling is not organised well, we will have very much waste material. This would mean that new material would always have to be extracted from the ground, and this is of course not always sustainable.”
The position of Finland in the future of the battery industry could be significant as Finland has the largest cobalt resources in Europe and the knowledge and infrastructure for the refinement of it. While China currently leads the World in the refinement of cobalt, Finland is already on its way to more central position in the industry. Recently, for example, the British chemistry corporation Johnson Matthey has been planning the opening of a battery material factory in Finland. With opportunity comes, however, also responsibility: “Mining consumes a lot of energy and environmental effect depends a lot on, for example, the sources of this energy. Cobalt is also somewhat poisonous. In Finland, the statutes regarding environmental effects, for example pollution, are relatively good compared to some other countries”, Rinne tells. However, even the Finnish mining industry is not completely unproblematic. Following from previous issues in the industry, the national mining law is in fact under examination and reform within the Finnish parliament currently.
The practices of circular economy require special collaboration skills from society. When all ‘waste’ cannot be thrown into one bin from which it would then automatically move to landfill, the infrastructure must be ready to reshape a new life for each and every used material. While the principles of recycling are not new, and the human societies have mainly been based on the continuous recycling of natural materials and repair of durable items – and actually, on the contrary, the concept of waste is modern (Lagerspetz 2020) – many of today’s items that are made out of extremely complex materials, drawn from and assembled around the globe, also require new ways of recycling. Perhaps it could be said that in the current industrial structure based on powerful technology, large scale factories and fossil fuels, the fixing and recycling of ‘waste’ has become more cumbersome than producing new items.
Rinne explains that the collaboration between technology and business works well in regards to the development of sustainable, recycled batteries. “In Finland we have a good infrastructure and lots of excellent knowledge. The research works in continuous collaboration with the industry. It is highly important to work together.” However, the recycling infrastructure for the minerals seems to lag behind these developments: “There is no good logistics for the recycling of small electronics. People do not know what to do with their old devices.” Rinne mentions, that many of us still have a habit of keeping our old phones in the back of our cupboards. As long as these materials pile up in homes, they cannot be turned in to new products.
The recycling of minerals deals with many very different kinds of items, and concurrently, the challenges related to them vary. For example, the same problems hampering the recycling of phones are not relevant to the recycling of the huge batteries of electric cars, Rinne reminds. On the other hand, as electric cars are only now becoming more prominent in the market, it will take years until the materials in them are ready to be utilised for new products.
When asked about the current and future challenges of sustainable battery development and industry, Rinne mentions the economic boundaries first: “All kinds of things could be done, but it is a different question of what is economically reasonable.” Another challenge Rinne brings up, is the recycling of lithium that is extracted from the dry plains of Chile: “The recovery of lithium has been challenging so far because of its reactivity. […] So far virgin lithium has been cheap and with the increase of its use it will become a critical material. The EU has in fact imposed, that in future it must be recycled from batteries.” As Rinne also proposes, many recycling processes are under constant development and both political and economic decisions strongly affect the research and invention of new methods.
The research of batteries is very complex but it is increasingly done around the world, Rinne tells. Low carbon opportunities for the recycling and production of batteries are the next step in the field.
Still, before the political mentality, technology and infrastructure required for a circular economy are fully enacted, the current eco-social issues in the mining of minerals require fast solutions. A recent article by YLE news discussed the extremely politically and socially complex situation surrounding the cobalt mining industry in Congo. The cobalt mined in Congo is then also refined in Finland.
The chain through which the mineral travel from beneath the ground to the final product is often hard to follow. It is, however, clear that in many countries mining is linked to numerous human rights offences in addition to the aforementioned environmental problems. It is the case that for many of the countries from which minerals are extracted and introduced to the global market are affected by high rates of corruption and political instability.
Rinne proposes in the end of our discussion, that conversation between different fields of knowledge is indeed necessary: “I do not for example know how tomake the social situation in Congo any better. Someone else is much better at understanding the social aspects there.”
The awareness of the material and political origin of our everyday items is a strong start for the change of our unsustainable and unequal production chains. Yet, the eco-social disruption in many mining environments requires extremely fast reactions.
The situation with the production, development and use of minerals changes continuously, and positive developments can also be perceived in the midst of deep problems. For example, the American company Li-Cycle is developing new ways of tackling the challenging recycling of lithium. Furthermore, solutions for the complex issues in global production chains are aspired to be foundin a new corporation responsibility law. The corporation responsibility law would mean that the companies would have to consider human rights in their whole value chain – at the moment such responsibility is inversely voluntary. In Finland, the non-governmental organisation Finnwatch has worked actively to push the implementation of the law. Perhaps such law would guide the situa-tion also in Congo towards more sustainability and justice.
Jacka, Jerry. 2018. ‘ ̃The Anthropology of Mining: The social and environmental impacts of resource extraction in the mineral age’. Annual Review of Anthropol-ogy, vol. 47.
Lagerspetz, Olli. 2020. ‘Kun “jätettä” ei ollut’. Niin & näin, vol. 4.
Lindström, L. & Rigatelli, S. 2021. ‘Pimeä akku – Kobolttihuuma on meille kipeä kysymys, vaikka suomalaisyritykset vakuuttavat, etteivät ne käytä lasten hankkimaa metallia. Yle. https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-11748022
Merchant, Brian. 2017. ‘Everything that’s inside your iPhone’. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en/article/433wyq/everything-thats-inside-your-iphone
Työ- ja elinkeinoministeriö. 2021. Kaivoslain uudistaminen 2020-2021. https://tem.fi/kaivoslakiuudistus.