Sustainable Supply And the Trouble With Tantalum

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There’s more to sustainable IT than low-power servers. consider the materials with which your equipment is made, and you may get a shock, says Simon Perry

While the intervening years have seen little real change, Tantalum’s presence in consumer and office electronics goods is facing renewed focus. In April, US Senators Sam Brownback, Dick Durbin, and Russ Feingold drafted and introduced a new act called the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009. Under the draft legislation, US-registered companies selling products using columbite-tantalite (a source of tantalum), cassiterite, or wolframite, or derivatives of these minerals, would be required to annually disclose to the SEC the country of origin of those minerals. If the country of origin is the DRC or neighbouring countries, the company would need to also disclose the specific mine that the minerals are sourced from.

How significant that act might be in shaking up the electronic supply chain is perhaps indicated by the fact that meanwhile, the world’s largest source of tantalum outside of the DRC is busy shutting down operations. Australia’s Talison Minerals, which previously enjoyed a 50 percent market share for supply of the mineral, mothballed its largest mine at the end of 2008, a move that reduced its active tantalum mine operations from three to one. In announcing the action Talison cited unviable market prices related in part to cheap supply from the DRC.

Perhaps the US’ Congo Conflict Minerals Act will see a reversal in this market state in the coming years, as the restrictions and market pressures make electronics manufactures reconsider their supply chains. Right now, electronics manufacturers are unnecessarily and significantly exposed by the provenance of the tantalum supply.

All of which is a good lesson as to why “sustainable IT” is more than a passing nod toward an energy efficient server or a refillable printer cartridge. While the newly drafted Congo Conflict Minerals Act has a way to go before being adopted (as is or amended) it is a sign that far more scrutiny can be expected into the ICT industry supply chain in the future. Such scrutiny no doubt introduces complexity in both adherence by manufacturers, as well as in the level of consideration a buyer might have to take in selecting a product and supplier. However scrutiny crucially enables informed decision making, which is never a bad thing.

Meanwhile, take another look at your mobile phone, there’s more inside it than just your contacts list and a battery that never lasts long enough.

Simon Perry is a principal associate analyst at Quocirca, specialising in the implications of environmental sustainability on business models.