There are many good reasons to recycle old cellphones, but one of the best is to save the Eastern Lowland Mountain Gorilla in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
How is it that what you do with a cell phone affects gorillas in Africa? It has to do with our fragile and tightly coupled ecosystem. Here’s what happens. Cellphones are constructed from various electronic components. One of these is a tantalum capacitor. Tantalum is a rare and valuable metal that enables once physically large capacitors to be made small enough to squeeze into those slim cell phone cases. You get tantalum from columbite tantalite, a metallic ore called Coltan for short. Eighty percent of the world’s Coltan reserves are found in Africa, with the majority of the deposits located within the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ah, you are starting to see the connection. Here’s how the gorillas get involved. It’s illegal to mine for Coltan in the Congo, but with the material going for as much as $400 a kilogram, such mining continues on a large scale. Forests are cleared to make way for the mining and paved roads are installed. The gorillas become exposed and easy targets for bush meat hunters who sell the meat to feed miners and rebel armies in control of the area. More than half of the mountain gorilla population has been lost in just the last five years. It’s also thought that an entire population of elephants has also been wiped out in this activity.
So what we have is a situation where demand for a rare mineral has mushroomed to support the hundreds of millions of cell phones manufactured for use worldwide. High prices for Coltan have promoted the destruction of wild habitat and the killing of endangered gorillas and elephants who once enjoyed a protected environment. Is this just the price we have to pay for technology or can something be done?
Something is being done. The Jane Goodall Institute and Melbourne Zoo in Australia have joined forces to create a mobile phone recycling program called “They’re Calling on You.”You can visit the zoo to collect a postage paid recycling satchel or download and print a postage paid label to send your phone in. They’ve even got a program for corporations to donate fleets of old mobile phones. If your school would like to help, you can integrate the program into your curriculum.
They’re indeed calling on you and, if you live in Australia, you have the unique honor of being able to answer this call. But what about the rest of the world? Is there anything we can do?
Absolutely, there is. In the United States, Gazelle offers a cell phone and electronic gadgets recycling program that also includes a free mailer. This one goes beyond mobile phones to include electronic games, computers and even photography gear. They will even pay you for recent vintage equipment in good working order.
Elsewhere around the world, look for local or large scale recycling programs. But whatever you do, don’t toss that cell phone in the trash. That only compounds the problem. In addition to the damage done by creating the product in the first place, electronic components degrade in the environment and leach out toxic chemicals that can pollute the soil and water table.
The recycling programs offer a double benefit. They not only prevent damage from decaying products, they also reduce the need for mining and manufacturing by refurbishing the old phones for use in disadvantaged communities. Devices too old or not functional can be ground up by reclaimers to recycle the minerals to make new phones.
Listen! They’re really calling you... and it’s a very important call!
Note: Photo of gorilla courtesy of Wikimedia Commons