Coltan-free computer: Is it a thing?
November 20, 2011 4:26 AM   Subscribe

Is there such thing as a coltan-free computer?

I'm concerned about the slave labour and child labour that goes into coltan mining and would like to buy a computer without it. I've been googling like a bastard, but can't find the answer to the questions:

- Is coltan an essential material in a computer, or are there computers made without it?
- How can I find a computer made without coltan?
posted by giggleknickers to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you can get motherboards without tantalum capacitors, no. What you could do is buy from a company like Intel or HP which are required (as US companies) by the Dodd-Frank Act to ensure that they do not use tantalum that cannot be traced back to responsible mining programmes.

Even though Intel is involved in funding responsible mining pilot programmes in the DRC, I imagine that they buy their capacitors from Chinese (Mainland and Taiwanese) manufacturers who in turn buy their tantalum from all kinds of people, and they buy their coltan ore from who knows where.
posted by atrazine at 4:41 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

As atrazine said, it's very difficult to know where stuff like coltan ore is coming from. A lot of big corporations will claim to be 'responsible' when it comes to sourcing material, but either can't or won't determine where their own suppliers are getting their stuff.

Your best bet would probably be to check out the companies involved in making the components for any computer you're interested in buying. Most commercial desktop computers use motherboards/processors from a relatively small pool of manufacturers (AMD/Intel for processors, a few big companies for motherboards) - ditto for thinks like wifi components and RAM. Do some research and see what kind of reputation those companies have in terms of avoiding materials produced by unfree labour.

There's actually a website that rates tech companies based on how responsible they are about sourcing ethically-mined minerals, but I can't for the life of me find it now. If anyone else knows which one I'm talking about, please do post a link. I remember it being very helpful.
posted by anaximander at 4:50 AM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: All computers are made by a small number of contract manufacturers in southeast Asia, the most famous of which is Hon Hai, also known as Foxconn. Once manufactured the appropriate label is slapped on them and they become Apple, HP, Lenovo, etc. These contract manufacturers are sourcing parts from other contract manufacturers and so on down the line. There are layers of obfuscation in between to protect trade secrets, so that it is essentially impossible to tell who is making what for whom, and all computers have roughly equivalent supply chains to the best of anyone's knowledge. This means your purchasing dollars will not have any effect on resource mining practices.

The electronics industry is not one in which a small-time shop could set up a responsible manufacturing practice ("organic PC's"?). Manufacturing components requires tremendous capital and highly specialized facilities, and margins are razor thin, made up for only by tremendous volume. Either you replicate the entire supply chain yourself, and good luck with that, or you buy the same parts everyone else does, and then your product is... the same as everyone else's.

To date I'm not aware of any meaningful measurement standard for social justice impacts in electronics at the product level. aniximander was likely thinking of Greenpeace which is probably the best attempt to qualitatively rate electronics companies on their corporate responsibility. In terms of individual purchasing there is the EPEAT standard which singles out environmentally preferable products -- this is used by institutional procurement departments, notably the US government, but consumers can use it too. No social justice angle to this. But in the end if you want to buy a responsible computer, aim for something lightweight that uses less electricity.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:00 AM on November 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

I asked this a few years ago and it may be helpful.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:31 AM on November 20, 2011

In addition to PercussivePaul's excellent advice, another thing you might do, if you're interested in responsible computing, is to buy user-serviceable secondhand hardware, then keep it running as long as possible (Linux and other free OSs can help with this).

Many people get rid of computers when they could be repaired or upgraded--if you already have a computer, even a nonfunctional one, this might be another option.
posted by box at 6:43 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely buy computers that you can keep longer. That will cut down the impact more than anything. Honestly, the only company that could probably build an ethical computer would be Apple, since they order so many of the same part.
posted by wnissen at 11:46 AM on November 20, 2011

While not wanting to diss you concerns, I'm going to link to a comment I made in Meta a while ago.
posted by Pinback at 11:48 AM on November 20, 2011

Actually, I tend to agree with Pinback, and while I didn't have that data handy I'm not surprised to hear it. I mentally replaced "coltan mining" with "social justice concerns" when responding, because it is important to think about social justice and the question's heart is in the right place. But coltan mining is bizarrely over-prominent in the discourse about social justice in electronics. Probably every material input including other metals like gold or copper has equally terrible horror stories attachable to it, and these are used in appreciable amounts while tantalum usage is trace, at best.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:38 PM on November 20, 2011

I'm with Pinback and PercussivePaul. Aside from it being massively impractical to try to find the source of individual metals in components, it's missing the bigger picture: any piece of anything came from somewhere. Whether it was pumped out the ground, quarried or mined, any new computer has a plethora of bits from all over the world inside, contributing to environmental and/or social decay in various places (and the first world isn't exactly exempt from this). REEs from China, Lithium from Bolivia or Chile, Tantalum (most likely from AUS, Brazil or Canada, not the DRC), etc. etc. etc.

The best advice is to invest in a few high-quality items that will last a long time, or depending on your needs, buy second-hand. And recycle.
posted by t_dubs at 1:45 PM on November 20, 2011

« Older Green fingered Mefites, how close should I plant a...   |   Why does sleepiness elude me? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.