How can mobile phone recycling help gorilla populations?
Did you know that the old mobile phone in your top drawer could be linked to the dramatic decline of gorilla populations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)?
The link between hoarding disused mobile phones and the decimation of Grauer gorilla habitats has been explored in a paper in the journal PLOS ONE, authored by researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) and Zoos Victoria. The two organisations evaluated the first six years of the ongoing ‘They’re Calling On You’ mobile phone recycling program run by Zoos Victoria, as part of a national campaign operating in Australian zoos.
As part of the program, zoo visitors and the broader Victorian community were educated about the value of recycling discarded phones to extract special metals used in their construction — the same metals which are being mined in the eastern DRC, not only destroying gorilla habitats but also funding wars and human rights abuses. Recent population estimates of Grauer gorillas in the DRC show a dramatic 73–93% decline, with fewer than 4000 remaining in the wild and the species now listed as critically endangered.
UniSA Conservation Psychologist and Great Ape expert Dr Carla Litchfield, the paper’s lead author, said if ‘conflict’ elements — including gold and coltan — can be recovered from old mobile phones, there is less incentive to mine gorilla habitats for the same minerals.
“For every 30–40 mobile phones that are recycled, on average, one gram of gold can be recovered,” Dr Litchfield said. “Just as mobile phone sales are soaring, and gold content is increasing in some smartphones, natural sources of gold are expected to run out by 2030.”
In Germany, by 2035 it is predicted that more than 8000 tonnes of precious metals will lie in unrecycled mobile and smartphones. In China, by 2025 an estimated nine tonnes of gold, 15 tonnes of silver and 3100 tonnes of copper will also be out of the supply loop in 0.35 billion unrecycled phones.
The authors point out the barriers to recycling used phones, including lack of e-waste recycling points in many countries, secrecy around the phones’ mineral composition, privacy concerns around accessing old data and just plain hoarding.
“Hoarding is problematic since precious metals are not extracted and returned to the circular economy, creating the need to mine these metals in wilderness areas,” Dr Litchfield said.
“The other issue is that if people do discard their old phones, most dispose of them in their household waste, ending up in landfill, where they leach toxic metals.”
Zoos Victoria launched They’re Calling On You in 2009 to educate visitors about the link between mining in the DRC, the destruction of gorilla habitats and the importance of mobile phone recycling. By 2014, zoo visitors had donated more than 115,000 old mobile phones for recycling as a result of the social marketing initiative.
“This number may seem a drop in the ocean — representing just 0.01% of the 1 billion retired phones out there — but when you look at the result in the context of a state of 6 million people, it is very impressive,” said Dr Litchfield, who hopes the campaign will eventually be rolled out globally. And with an estimated 400 million people around the world having hoarded a mobile phone in the past year, that’s a lot of potential to make a real difference.
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