If you have ever marvelled at a shiny new car or longed for that new highlighter that really makes your cheekbones pop, the chances are you are most likely admiring the mica. Mica is a mineral most of us have never heard of, but it is one we come into contact with multiple times a day. A sheet silicate and a very common rock-forming mineral, mica - the group name - can be divided into subgroups, the most common being biotite, muscovite, phlogopite and lepidolite.
Mica is used in many industries due to an array of properties such as its low thermal and electrical conductivity, chemical inertness, infusibility, high strength, high lustre and reflectivity. The combination of these properties means that mica is used extensively in the automotive, electrical and cosmetic industries. Since 2008 there has been a 30-fold increase in consumption of the mineral, and in 2015, the mica industry was estimated to be worth almost half a billion dollars. Despite growing demand there has been a sharp decrease in its price, leaving its miners vulnerable to exploitation.
Currently the electronics and automotive industries consume the largest amount of mica. Any electrical device contains a component comprising of mica. In the automotive industry it is estimated that there are up to 15,000 parts that could contain mica in one single car, not only internally but also externally on the car in its paint, giving it its lustrous shine. Mica has recently been used in the form of paper to insulate electric vehicle batteries.
In 2019, slight panic set in when several batteries in Tesla cars started 'self-combusting for no particular reason'. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sponsored a study on why this was occurring, and concluded that it was most likely down to the ‘accidental ignition’ of the lithium ion battery used to power the car. The use of mica paper for insulation would have prevented this.
Electric Vehicles sales are expected to rise by 75% a year in order to cater for the ban of petrol and diesel cars in 2035, a regulation set 5 years earlier than expected. The increase in production of electric vehicles means that more mica will have to be mined and imported to service demand.
Mica is also a common product within the cosmetics industry. Ground mica is used to give the pearlescent pigments in eyeshadows, shimmer, lipstick, body lotions, shampoo and toothpaste. Many cosmetic companies claim to be ‘animal cruelty free’. Whether they are human exploitation free is another question. Despite press coverage on the use of child mined mica in products, large cosmetics brands are still recording record revenues, such as L’Oréal Paris, the leading beauty manufacturer of 2018, with $31.2 billion that year.
What is the problem with mica?
Madagascar and India are identified in the map below as being ‘guilty of child labour in mica mining’. It has been heavily reported in both countries that child labour is rife. In Madagascar, at least 50% of the mica is mined by minors (aged between 5-17 years). This means around 11,000 vulnerable children are being exploited on a regular basis. Similarly, it is estimated that in the two largest mining provinces in India, Jharkhand and Bihar, 22,000 minors work within illegal mica mines. In these two areas it is said, traders who control the mica mines have a set rate they give to families who lose loved ones while mining, of 33,000 rupees (about £330). Often the true number of fatalities at these informal mica mining sites is hard to underpin because it is widely believed that officials cover up true numbers. However it is thought around 10-20 people die in the mines each month.
The mica mined in Madagascar and India are both destined for China, to be produced into material that can be inserted into products that sell around the world. The problems that surround mica are not well known because consumers know little about the mineral itself and the uses it has. The lack of awareness is also shared by large OEM’s purchasing the mica products, who are often uninformed of exploitations upstream.
How can the mica industry be cleaned up?
We are in an age of vloggers and social media celebrities; such people are influential across many industries form vlogging about the newest body shimmer to rating the newest sport cars, all of which are known to contain mica in different forms. In a recent BBC documentary ‘beauty laid bare’ well known beauty bloggers were shown the not so glamorous side of the cosmetics industry and they were shocked and saddened to learn about the hidden costs of the products they proudly promote. We know that many if not all consumers would think twice about the products they purchased if they knew the true cost to human, often children’s, lives. Educations of customers is key to making a change and ensuring large corporations stand up, listen and reform.
By using Circulor’s traceability-as-a-service platform to track mica through the supply chain, companies can be alerted to suspicious activities that may suggest unethically mined mica is being added into their supply chains. Circulor’s solutions can disrupt the currently accepted mica mining industry and ensure mica that ends up in luxury products isn’t mined by some of the world’s most vulnerable people.