Clean Tech at the Cost of Childhoods: Is the Price Too High?

Clean Tech at the Cost of Childhoods: Is the Price Too High?

The sleek devices that power our modern lives—smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles—often come with a hidden cost: child exploitation. Lithium-ion batteries, essential to these technologies, rely heavily on cobalt, which is frequently mined by children. People and society are integral parts of the environment, and a sustainable planet requires clean practices. The Sustainable Development Goals call for ending poverty, protecting against environmental degradation, providing quality education, and ensuring peace and prosperity for all. These rare earth materials are primarily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and processed in China. While the world enjoys clean energy and advanced technology, children in mines and recycling facilities are deprived of their fundamental rights. Play, learning, and social development are sacrificed as they are thrust into adult responsibilities and hazardous conditions. This exploitation results in a devastating loss of innocence and profound emotional trauma. Let’s break the silence through this blog:

Conditions in the Mines and Recycling Facilities

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the Home to over two-thirds of the world’s cobalt reserves, the DRC is plagued by widespread child labour in artisanal mines. The mines where these children toil are often little more than pits dug by hand. Cramped tunnels, with minimal ventilation and flickering light sources, make them incredibly dangerous. Children, sometimes as young as six years old, use rudimentary tools to break rocks and haul heavy loads of cobalt ore. Exposure to dust and toxic fumes is constant, with no protective equipment available. Accidents are frequent, and the risk of tunnel collapses is ever-present. In addition to working in mines, children are also used to collecting garbage, handling toxic battery waste for recycling. Children, estimated at 10 to 15 million worldwide, become waste pickers. Sifting through mountains of garbage for recyclables, they face a barrage of health risks. Heavy metals like lead and mercury can lead to developmental delays and organ damage. The dangers don’t end there. Waste can harbour infectious agents like bacteria and viruses, putting children at risk of diseases like hepatitis and cholera. Once collected, the sorting process often falls to children as well, further intensifying their exposure to toxins in makeshift facilities with poor ventilation. China accounts for approximately 75% of global lithium-ion battery production and hosts the majority of lithium processing facilities worldwide. According to reports by Basel Action Network, an estimated 1.5 million children work in China’s informal recycling sector, exposed to inhuman conditions.

A Vicious Cycle: Poverty, Exploitation, and Health Risks

Children working in these hazardous environments face a multitude of health problems, jeopardising their physical and mental well-being:

  • Respiratory Distress: Dust from mining activities and toxic fumes from e-waste burning heavily pollute the air. Children inhale these toxins, leading to chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses. A 2021 UNICEF report estimates that 40% of children working in DRC’s cobalt mines suffer from respiratory problems.
  • Poisoning: Exposure to heavy metals like cobalt, lead, and mercury is a major concern. These metals can accumulate in the body, causing learning disabilities, behavioural problems, stunted growth, and even organ damage. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), lead poisoning affects the intellectual development of over 800 million children globally.
  • Musculoskeletal Injuries: Children often carry heavy loads in mines, sometimes exceeding 40 kg, according to an Amnesty International report. They also work in cramped tunnels with poor ventilation, putting them at risk of suffocation and collapsed mine shafts. This repetitive strain and unsafe working conditions can lead to muscle and bone problems, causing long-term pain and disability.
  • Psychological Trauma: The physical dangers are compounded by the psychological impact. Children in these environments witness accidents, experience fear and anxiety, and often feel trapped in a cycle of exploitation. A child rights organisation, found that 70% of children working in DRC’s cobalt mines reported feelings of fear and anxiety.

The dangers of child labour in the battery supply chain extend to unborn children. Pregnant mothers working in mines risk their own health and that of their babies. Exposure to toxins like lead and cobalt can lead to birth defects, developmental delays, and miscarriage. A significant number of pregnant women carry their young children on their backs, are forced into this hazardous work due to extreme poverty and lack of alternatives.

A Stolen Future: Educational Deprivation and Generational Impacts

The exploitation of children goes beyond physical harm. Child labour in the battery supply chain has severe social and economic consequences:

  • Education Denied: A 2020 UNICEF report estimates that 40,000 children work in the DRC’s cobalt mines. These children have no time for school.. The World Bank estimates that 1 in 6 children globally are engaged in child labour.
  • Exploited Labor: These children work long hours for meagre wages, often under dangerous and abusive conditions. Reports found that children working 12 hours a day in DRC’s cobalt mines for as little as 80-100 Rs a day.
  • Intergenerational Impact: The health problems and educational deprivation experienced by children working in these environments can be passed down to future generations, creating a cycle of poverty and illness.

Starting on the Journey to Clean Energy Begins with Ethical Choices

Eradicating child labour in the battery supply chain demands a multifaceted attack. Stricter regulations, consumer awareness campaigns – all these are crucial to secure a brighter future for these children. However, the most significant weapon in this fight might be a shift away from lithium-ion batteries. This is where sodium-ion batteries emerge as a beacon of hope. Here’s how Na+ batteries can potentially alleviate the child labour crisis:

  • Reduced Reliance on Conflict Minerals: Sodium-ion batteries use readily available and abundant sodium, a common element found in seawater and table salt. This significantly reduces dependence on conflict minerals like cobalt, which are often mined in countries with weak regulations and a history of child labour.
  • Ethical Sourcing: By eliminating the need for cobalt, sodium-ion batteries can help eliminate the ethical concerns associated with cobalt mining. This shift can empower consumers to choose clean energy solutions without contributing to human rights violations.
  • Improved Working Conditions: A decreased demand for cobalt mining can lead to improved working conditions in the mining sector. This can benefit adult workers and potentially reduce the pressure on families to send their children to work in these hazardous environments.
  • Geopolitical Stability: The vast global presence of sodium reduces reliance on a single region for battery production, mitigating geopolitical tensions and supply chain disruptions.

The clean technology revolution requires truly clean practices. By holding corporations accountable, demanding transparency, and supporting ethical alternatives, we can build a future where the devices we rely on are powered by innovation, not exploitation. Uneverse is on its way to build better batteries for better future but everyone’s support and encouragement it will not be possible to execute. Let’s join hands to ensure a clean future. Are you with us?