Cellphones are endangering gorillas, but recycling old ones can help

In the Congo basin, minerals used in cellphones and other electronics are often mined by illegal, small-scale miners who end up hurting wildlife for food and driving them away from their habitat. You can do something to change this.

You probably use it every day and don’t think once about gorillas.

In today’s world, it’s almost impossible to get by without a mobile phone, but they’re wreaking havoc for these primates. The critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla has lost 77 per cent of its population in the last 20 years, partly due to the mining of minerals used to make cellphones.

Gorillas are “teetering on the edge of extinction,” says Sonya Kahlenberg, executive director of the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  Among the chief culprits: small-scale “artisanal” mining in the Congo Basin. This mining, which Kahlenberg says is “often illegal or linked with armed groups,” not only threatens gorilla habitat, but miners also illegally hunt wildlife, including gorillas, for food.

One of the primary minerals extracted here is coltan, a type of ore that is used in mobile phones and other electronic devices to help store electricity.

Cellphone recycling programs are one easy way for consumers to help reduce the amount of the conflict minerals that are extracted to produce electronics, but according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, fewer than 20 per cent of unwanted cellphones are recycled each year. 

While many people may be unknowingly hoarding their old phones in a kitchen cabinet or even throwing them in the garbage, a December 2018 study in PLOS ONE indicates that strong education campaigns in zoos were successful in encouraging patrons to change their cellphone recycling habits.

Researchers at the Melbourne Zoo and the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Australia analysed a six-year mobile phone education and donation program at the facilities, which collected 115,369 cellphones from 2009-2014. The campaign used displays and keeper talks to encourage visitors to recycle their old phones. Keeper talks were found to be particularly effective, especially at the Werribee Open Range Zoo, where audiences are limited to 15 people and one phone was donated for every four people attending a keeper talk. In Melbourne, where such presentations are larger and more frequent, one phone was donated for every 28 people who attended a keeper talk.

If we can reach consumers en masse, especially young consumers, and inspire them to demand ethical, gorilla-safe products, then the entire electronics landscape will change dramatically.

Eric Ronay, founder, ECO-CELL

While this specific campaign could be considered trivial when competing against a booming cellphone industry—according to Statista, 1.54 billion smart phones were sold worldwide in 2017—mobile phone recycling is offered at zoos across the world and could make a much larger impact on gorilla conservation if similar campaigns were rolled out in other facilities, the study suggests.

The number of phones collected during the study period “may seem a ‘drop in the ocean,’ representing 0.01 per cent of the one billion phones that may be retired globally,” the study says. “However, for the State of Victoria in Australia, with an estimated population of under six million people, this figure is more impressive.”

How to recycle your mobile phone for gorillas

ECO-CELL is an electronics recycling company that partners with primate conservation groups like GRACE, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and Jane Goodall Institute. The company offers drop-offs across the United States and parts of Canada, doing most of its work through zoological facilities like the Cincinnati Zoo, Kansas City Zoo and Greater Vancouver Zoo. (A full list of drop-off locations and partner organizations can be found at eco-cell.com.)

Eric Ronay, owner of ECO-CELL, says his company has recycled nearly 1 million cellphones, though he can’t quantify the exact impact his business has had on wild gorilla populations.

Phones sent to ECO-CELL are used in a number of ways to support the company’s partners. According to the GRACE website, smart phones in good condition can be reused by care staff and Apple iPhones can be used in veterinary labs to diagnose and treat diseases in gorillas. Those that cannot be reused due to age or condition are recycled with funds benefiting gorilla conservation.

Mining in the Congo Basin also threatens chimpanzees, and the Jane Goodall Institute promotes an international mobile phone recycling day each year on January 24. On its website, mobilerecyclingday.org, the organization links to details about cellphone recycling programs in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Greece, Netherlands, Spain and the United States.

The bigger picture

While cellphone recycling seems to be a win-win, it is merely part of a larger puzzle, warns Ronay.

“Right now cellphone recycling is just one very small piece of a poorly envisioned and executed electronics lifecycle,” he says. “Electronics companies, guided by the demands of informed consumers, should be creating products that are ethically sourced, produced in an energy efficient manner, modular in design to extend lifecycle and easy to recycle to reclaim resources that can be reused for new products.”

He adds, “ECO-CELL’s focus is squarely on the informed consumer piece. If we can reach consumers en masse, especially young consumers, and inspire them to demand ethical, gorilla-safe products, then the entire electronics landscape will change dramatically.”

Kahlenberg agrees that recycling alone won’t save gorillas, but it’s a start.

“Recycling electronics isn’t going to fix the problem, but it is something simple that everyone can do to contribute to a solution,” she says. “Even more important is for people to realise that their consumption has real, and in the case of gorillas, dire consequences. The next time you think you need the latest phone upgrade, know that your decision impacts gorillas.”

Carla Litchfield, co-author of the cellphone study, encourages consumers to get involved in other ways to make a larger impact.

“Ideally, consumers will not upgrade their phones every year and they will recycle all of their old cellphones rather than store them at home or throw them into the trash,” she says.  “They can also let their politicians know that they support conflict-free mining of resources used in cellphones and that one day the supply chain may be regulated and guarantee conflict-free resources.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com

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