Recycling Old Cell Phones to Benefit Gorillas

Carla A. Litchfield, Rachel Lowry, Jill Dorrian

Front Image Source: Pixabay

How Our Love of Cell Phones Impacts Gorillas and Their Environment

The use and evolution of the cell phone exploded in the early 2000s. As the technology became available at a price that made it accessible to more people, it quickly became a staple of modern life in many parts of the world. Today, there are roughly seven billion cell phone devices in service and an estimated 400 million devices that are retired every year when users upgrade. Additionally, there are an estimated one billion devices that are already retired and no longer in use. This amount of retired devices presents a challenge because within those devices are valuable materials that could be extracted for recycling purposes rather than mining for new materials.

Cell phones contain some materials and metals that are referred to as “conflict metals”. Conflict metals are mined from geographic locations involved in armed conflict and can contribute to further conflict and human rights abuses when extracted illegally. Some examples of conflict metals include cassiterite (containing the element tin), wolfram (containing the element tungsten), coltan (containing elements tantalum and niobium), and gold. Collectively, these metals are often called 3TG because of their initials (Tantalum, Tungsten, Tin, and Gold). Mining these metals can also have extremely negative consequences for wildlife that live in the habitats in which the metals can be found.

In particular, coltan, which can be found in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), poses a threat to eastern lowland gorilla populations and their habitats. Due to conflict in the DRC and the potential to profit, illegal mining of coltan takes place in protected areas, like the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Demand for coltan has risen for use in cell phones and other electronics as popularity of these products has grown, but being a finite resource, coltan is harder to come by the more it is extracted. The increased demand for coltan and the armed conflict in the area has led to rebels mining national parks, destroying forest habitat in the process. Additionally, due to poverty and starvation resulting from the conflict, illegal hunting around the mining sites threatens the Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) populations in the area and in 2009 an estimated 300 gorillas were killed for bushmeat in southern DRC.

To combat the threat and sharp decline of affected wildlife populations, the United Nations along with governments and electronics manufacturers are aiming to establish trading chains that are certified “DRC conflict free”. Additionally, use of recycling programs can help alleviate the threats by reusing the conflict metals already extracted. It is estimated that by 2035 roughly 8,800 tons of valuable metals will remain in unrecycled cell phone devices in Germany alone.  

The Program: “They’re Calling On You”

Since roughly eighty percent of people store their unwanted mobile phones at home, awareness and incentives to reuse and recycle devices are key. Zoos Victoria in Australia set out to bring awareness and increase participation in cell phone recycling through their program called “They’re Calling On You”. The program began in 2008 and focused on gorillas since large scale reuse and recycling of cell phones can have a positive impact by helping reduce threats to gorillas associated with coltan mining. The program sought collection through different “Points of Influence”, such as Keeper Talks, Static Displays, and Courier Collection in which people could mail in their devices through prepaid satchels.

Example of the prepaid satchel distributed to users of the “They’re Calling on You” program run by Zoos Victoria. Source: Litchfield et al., 2018.

Results and Expanding Out

Collectively, the program brought in 117,745 cell phones in its first six years. While this may seem like an insignificant number when considering the scale of the problem, it is a promising number for a single program run in the State of Victoria in Australia, which is home to under six million people. Additionally, while it is difficult to show direct impact of the mobile phone donations collected here on helping to reduce the threat of coltan mining and associated harm to the nearby gorilla populations, there have been improvements to gorilla and habitat protection at the DRC Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the sector visited by tourists.

Looking beyond Australia, an additional aim of the program is to also demonstrate that a global effort could take place within zoo organizations since 700 million people visit zoos every year. A global effort could be activated across zoos through the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), bringing awareness and collection efforts to a much broader scale since WAZA has a membership of roughly 400 organizations in over 40 countries.

If you are looking to recycle your own unwanted devices an initial list of ten different places can be found here, including an organization called Ecocell, which has been a supporter of the Jane Goodall Institute and its Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center in the eastern DRC since 2012.

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Katelyn Szura

I am currently completing my Masters in Biological and Environmental Science at the University of Rhode Island. My research focuses on examining how nitrogen inputs affect greenhouse gas fluxes from salt marshes, ultimately linking this work to how it impacts carbon storage in coastal wetlands. When not knee deep in marsh mud I enjoy running, hiking, sailing, and spending time with my pup, Bailey.

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