Is it hypocritical to want a smartphone but not the mining that produces it?

For those of us concerned with our ethical consistency, the first thing to note is that a new smartphone contains only about eight grams of copper (about five cents worth) and three grams of nickel (three cents). Meanwhile, both of these metals are infinitely recyclable.

So is it actually urgent to pull more copper and nickel out of the ground? In the current controversy on copper-nickel mining near the BWCA, what goes largely undiscussed are the actual supply and demand forces around primary copper and nickel. (Note that the other metals which Twin Metals’ and Polymet’s mines might furnish would be in trace amounts, and could not be profitably mined by themselves.)

Apparently convincing is the fact that generating electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar currently uses four to six times more copper per megawatt compared with nuclear or coal generation — largely due to the much wider dispersion of their networks (requiring miles more wire). But before we conclude this justifies more copper mining anywhere and everywhere in the name of green energy, a more careful analysis should be done.

Copper is not the only viable metal when it comes to green power. Aluminum (the choice for high-voltage power lines due to its superior conductivity-to-weight ratio and lower cost) is already used in some wind turbines.

Of course, bauxite mining presents its own concerns, depending on where and how it’s done. The larger point is that both copper and aluminum (and nickel) are already cheap and abundant. We’ve not yet had to engineer in the face of their scarcity, and a transition to renewable energy doesn’t somehow depend on us agreeing to every risky new mine, anywhere.

In fact, in the United States, the majority of copper we need is already reclaimed. We even export scrap copper. Similarly, for nickel, there is more recycling than primary production in the United States. Neither metal is on the list of Federal Critical Minerals. Existing mines are globally dispersed among dozens of countries. Odds of shortages or market shocks for either metal are low. We can be choosy about where we build any new mines.

And no, mining in America under our strict human and environmental safety laws won’t stop higher-risk, lower-environmental-standard mining in other countries. Only consumer, corporate, or political pressure on other countries to clean up their standards might.

But even if we ignore the current glut of supply, there is still much headroom for expanding and innovating our metals reclamation. Not only is recycling a cheaper source of copper, but it too can be a significant economic boon, one that uses far less energy and poses far less risk to the environment than mining. As the industry’s own Nickel Institute notes, “Gathering, sorting, preparing, transporting and using scrap metal generates significant employment.”

And yet, 17% of consumed nickel still gets landfilled.

Where smartphones are concerned, Apple recently turned to using recycled rare earth metals in its phones after consumer criticism — only to happily note how doing so made the supply chain more resilient. Often, finding a better source for our raw materials is a matter of will, not necessity.

There are already 1.1 trillion pounds of copper above the ground. So it’s not difficult to imagine that if more effort were put into reclaiming it, the need for mining fresh copper would diminish further. In fact, prices are currently low enough on these metals that it’s a fair question if the proposed mines in northern Minnesota might actually turn a consistent profit, given how expensive it is to mine the low-grade ore.

Or at least: What do razor-thin margins — and a commodity price that has shown in recent history that it can drop 68% in six months — mean for the supposed job security of the miners?

On the demand side, the majority of copper does not end up not in smartphones or consumer electronics, or even in electricity generation. In the U.S., 43% is put to use in new building construction and another 20% goes into vehicles. Globally, over half of copper demand is from China — a country not currently focused on green energy. (With nickel, 70% is alloyed into stainless steel.)

I don’t know the exact percent of demand we could meet if we recycled these metals at full capacity. But importantly, any leftover scarcity could finally price-in the real costs of mining raw material. In other words, the price signal might finally account for the true human and environmental costs buried in supply chains.

Hypothetically, if ceasing to buy cobalt from exploitative Congo mines were to raise its price, or if not mining near sensitive ecosystems like the Boundary Waters raised the prices of copper or nickel — well, as a consumer, I am happy to consume more deliberately. Because it is more ethical to absorb the (minimal) cost of mining in the least sensitive settings that we can. Entrepreneurs, engineers and companies (like Apple) are listening, and will innovate sourcing solutions if we demand it of them.

To be sure, rejuvenating rural economies for the long-term is a hard problem. Ely and the Iron Range are not alone in seeking an economic boost. Northern Minnesota’s current mining will die out, and any new mining will be done with less and less manpower, and will also die out.

At root here is a fundamental social question of how Americans’ basic needs are met: Do we really want our families’ security to continue to depend on boom-and-bust industries, the (scant) benevolence of multinationals or the “gig” economy?


David Johnson lives in Duluth.