Little Tin Soldiers of Indonesia

A photograph showing a young child labouring at an Indonesian tin mine.Does exactly What It Says on the…

Tin – an important element for the electronics industry.  Tin is in high demand to manufacture devices like smartphones and tablets.  In Indonesia and elsewhere, people work in mines to dig tin ore out of the ground.  A dangerous job is made even more unsafe where the mine is being run illegally.  And it is not just the adults who take risks.  Children in Indonesia are working in brutal conditions to collect the materials used in our cool gadgets.  The manufacturers are complicit.  Do you really feel like buying that brand new mobile phone now? 

Tin is the perfect metal for casting, far better than zinc – hence the tin soldiers.  Tin melts at a fairly low temperature, so you can use it with simple molds, even special rubber made ones.

Tin is non-toxic, unlike lead.  Tin is shiny and it does not tarnish.

Ancient Tin

A photograph of the ceremonial Beaune dirk at the British Museum in London, United Kingdom.
Beaune Dirk (1500-1350 BC), British Museum Ceremonial dirks were prestige pieces, the work of the best artisans that money could buy. Owning such a heavy, large metal object intended for no practical use was a symbol of power both temporal and, given their ritual purpose, spiritual.

Ever since 3000 BC, the first man-made alloy to be used on a large scale was bronze – an alloy made of copper and tin.

In Bronze Age Europe, sources of tin were few and far between.  There were tin mines in the Ore Mountains on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, on the Northwest Coast of the Iberian Peninsula, in Brittany in France, and in Devon and Cornwall in England.

Bronze is made with 90% copper and 10% tin, and it is that 10% tin that was particularly hard to come by in sufficient quantities.

Early Bronze Age metal work was done on a small scale for local usage, much like flint knapping or the production of pottery.  The Middle Bronze Age saw the development of more specialised metallurgy.

Metalworking became the province of increasingly skilled artisans who would have needed workshops and apprentices and imported raw materials to create more elaborate objects.

After 600 BC pure metallic tin was produced.

Pewter is an alloy of 85-90% tin, with the remaining 10-15%  consisting of copper, antimony and lead.  Pewter, was used for tableware and cutlery from the Bronze Age… until the 20th century.

A photograph showing a roll of soft solder.
Soft Solder for the Electronics Industry

Modern times tin is used in many alloys, most notably tin/lead soft solders, which are typically 60% or more tin.  Another large application for tin is corrosion-resistant tin plating of steel.  The low toxicity of tin-plated metal makes it an ideal material, commonly used for food packaging as “tin cans”, which are made mostly of steel.  But although “tin foil” used to be made of tin, it is now exclusively made of aluminium.


Element 50

A photograph showing tin ore.
Tin ore for smartphones, tablets, and all the favourite gadgets that the modern Western lifestyle can no longer be without…

Tin is a chemical element with symbol Sn50 (from the Latin: stannum) and atomic number 50.  Tin is the 49th most abundant element on Earth, mainly obtained from the mineral ore cassiterite where it occurs as tin dioxide, SnO2.

With 10 stable isotopes, tin has the largest number of stable isotopes in the periodic table.  Silvery, malleable, post-transition metal, not easily oxidised in air, tin has good corrosion resistance on account of forming a thin protective oxide layer.

Physically, post-transition metals are soft (or at least brittle).  Post-transition metals have poor mechanical strength, and their melting points are lower than those of the transition metals.  In most cases, they also have boiling points that are lower than those of the transition metals.

Their crystalline structures tend to show covalent or directional bonding effects, having generally greater complexity or fewer nearest neighbours than other metallic elements.

Chemically, they are characterised by:

  • covalent bonding tendencies,
  • acid-base amphoterism and
  • formation of anionic species, such as aluminates, stannates, and bismuthates.

Tin is a main group metal in group 14 of the periodic table.

Tin has chemical similarity to both fellow group-14 elements – germanium Ge32 and lead Pb82.  Like the latter, tin has two possible oxidation states: +2 and the slightly more stable +4.  In its preferred oxidation state of +2, the oxides of tin SnO and Sn(OH)2, are amphoteric – capable of reacting as either an acid or a base.  Tin forms stannites in strongly basic solutions. 

Below 13 °C (55.4 °F), tin modifies its structure and becomes ‘grey tin’, which has the same structure as diamond, silicon and germanium (BCN4).  This transformation causes ordinary tin to crumble and disintegrate since, as well as being brittle, grey tin occupies more volume due to having a less efficient crystalline packing structure.

Pure tin has no structural uses.  It is used in lead-free solders, and as a hardening agent in alloys of other metals, such as copper, lead, titanium and zinc.

Tin is used in car components, cans and plates.  Fifty-two per cent is used as solder, holding together the circuit boards and components of smartphones, laptops and tablets.  The only real problem is that tin is a little bit expensive.  Not terribly, but more than zinc…

As smartphones sales surpassed 1 billion units in 2013, and tablets 184 million units, the price of tin has skyrocketed, climbing from 5 U.S. dollars a kilogram to more than 23 U.S. dollars in the past 10 years.


Bangka Island, Indonesia

A photograph showing the devastated landscape that remains after a tin mine has been exploited.
Disused Tin Mine, near Bencah village, Bangka

Bangka and the neighbouring island of Belitung account for about 90 percent of Indonesia’s tin production.  Mining on the islands involves more than half the population, but it is largely unregulated, leading to a whole raft of ills.

A 2012 investigation by the Guardian and Friends of the Earth found widespread use of child labour, clearing of forests, and degradation to coral reefs.  Accidents kill scores of people each year.

Slightly larger than Cyprus, Bangka is an island of 1 million people.  Bangka Island provides around 30 per cent of the World’s tin.

After the industry was deregulated in 2001, the market was swamped with tens of thousands of miners.  Bangka has become a gigantic mining site, both offshore and onshore.  Its once pristine tropical forests are now scarred with thousands of moonlike craters contaminated with acidic water and heavy metals – the result of 13 years of indiscriminate mining.

Off the coast, tin is being mined from wooden pontoons that float a few hundred metres offshore. Although the platforms look like a fishing stage, the precarious contraptions are processing one of the most valuable metals in the World from the bottom of the sea.

A photographic collage of the makeshift pontoons that are used for tin mining in Indonesia.
Miners on makeshift pontoons scratch a lake bed for tin with bamboo sticks in Bangka, Indonesia

Upon reaching the floating platforms, young men work feverishly, diving into the muddy water, which contrasts with the turquoise of the surrounding sea.  Divers suck tin ore from the seabed through a plastic tube connected to a diesel-propelled pump.  At the same time, others operate suction pipes directly from the decks, constantly pounding the seabed with bamboo sticks to stir the sand and expose the ore.  The heavier tin ore is then deposited on the bottom of the wooden platform, while the sand is washed back into the sea.

A photograph of a few of the floating pontoons used for tin mining in Bangka, Indonesia.
Floating pontoons used for offshore tin mining in Indonesia

Each pontoon can collect 15 kilograms of ore.  Depending on the global market, each miner can earn around $15 (U.S.) per day – double the average pay of a farm labourer.  But this big bonanza comes at a great human cost.

The divers are the ones who risk the most.  The seabed pits from which the ore is drawn are deep and can easily collapse, burying the divers under metres of sand.

According to the provincial government’s department of mining and energy, 30-40% of Bangka’s population is active in mining.  The vast majority work in illegal areas stretching as far as the eye can see, often into the middle of protected forests.
Injuries and fatal accidents are rife.
So is child labour


Corporate Responsibility

A photographic collage showing children and toddlers sitting in devastated landscapes created by the tin mining industry in Indonesia.
The hidden side of Smartphones.  Children sit in devastated landscape created by their family members, who are miners in a huge illegal tin mine in Batako, Tunghin, a few metres from the village they live in.  Bangka Island (Indonesia) is devastated by a deadly tin rush, a direct consequence of the success of smartphones and tablets like iPhones and iPads from Apple or Samsung.  The demand and price for tin has increased due to its use in smart phones and tablets.

Smelters buy the raw tin that the miners dig up, then process it and sell it on.  Companies like Nokia, Sony, Blackberry, Motorola and LG Electronics have all accepted that producing phones is likely to support tin mining, which in turn is destroying tropical forests, ruining coastal waters and wrecking communities in Indonesia.

Reports also found that the silt generated from the tin mining was killing coral reefs and other marine life, ruining fishermen’s livelihoods, and leaving farmers no better off as tin mining lead to forest destruction that made farmland too acidic to support crops.  Environmental damages are not the only consequence of tin mining in the location.

Like The Guardian revealed in 2012, this type of mining is largely unregulated and mostly depends on child labour, killing 150 miners every year.  Their investigation into tin mining on the islands revealed as many a one miner per week dies in the mines and child labour is common in unofficial mines.

A photograph showing Apple Inc. shop front.The pressure even made Apple update its Supplier Responsibility webpage.  The firm, which receives components with tin from 249 of its suppliers, started investigating the situation in Bangka Island with the help of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition.  Apple is now funding a new study into tin mining in the region to better understand the situation.

However, Friends of the Earth aren’t staying put while the company checks the accusations.  Some members of the group have been going to Apple stores and putting special tags on products, which ask if the company has been using this particular tin.  Also, the group states that Samsung has admitted to using tin from Bangka Island in its products, but has promised to stop.

Following pressure from environmental organisation FoE, the five global mobile phones manufacturers have acknowledged the potential that their products contain lead from the troubled islands.  They have also made commitments to tackle the problem.

But Apple is the last of the best-known brands to offer a straight answer to more than 24 000 customers who have asked if Apple sources tin from Indonesia’s Bangka island, FoE said.  Apple has helped to set up a new industry stakeholder group discussing how to tackle the problem, but its official policy is still to refuse to acknowledge that iPhones and iPads contain tin mined in devastating conditions.

A still image from BBC Panorama documentary on child tin mining labour in Bangka, Indonesia.A recent investigation by the BBC has revealed that children in Indonesia are working in dangerous mines to collect materials used in our trendy gadgets.


The problem gadget makers face is that they cannot be sure exactly which type of mine their tin has come from.  Manufacturing companies must implement a system that holds smelters accountable, so that artisanal tin mining conditions in Indonesia can be positively ameliorated.

The people who work in the illegal mines say they need the money and have no other choice.  While over here in the West, and increasingly in China, we all no longer live without the latest gizmos…

Meanwhile, Apple’s quarterly profits are the “biggest ever” in history for a public company – $18 billion…

My search for the latest iPhone ends here.


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