Recycling Mobile Phones May Save Gorillas

Recycling Mobile Phones May Save Gorillas

Continued mining for materials for new phones endangers the environment and animal populations, a new study finds.

A small act can create a huge impact. In this case, holding on to old cellphones can create a massive impact on an endangered gorilla population, a new study asserts.

The study, “Recycling 115,369 mobile phones for gorilla conservation over a six-year period (2009-2014) at Zoos Victoria: A case study of ‘points of influence’ and mobile phone donations,” was authored by researchers and staff from the University of South Australia and Zoos Victoria and was published by PLOS ONE in early December.

According to the study, “Annual sales of mobile phones and computers account for about 4 percent of gold and silver and about 20 percent of cobalt and palladium mined globally.” As new phones are produced and old phones remain locked in people’s desk drawers, continued mining for materials endangers the environment and animal populations, the study asserts. Researchers estimate that about 1 billion phones have been retired.

Most people do not recycle their old mobile phones because of reasons that include future use or spare parts, data storage, keeping the phones as toys for their children, nostalgia, emotional attachment and concerns over data security; however, even when they aren’t holding onto the phones, people may dump them into the waste basket, causing the phones to end up in landfills.

“Old mobile phones may be refurbished for reuse or ultimately dismantled for possible extraction of elements, including ‘conflict’ metals such as coltan (containing elements tantalum and niobium), mined in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and threatening wild populations of eastern Grauer’s gorillas,” the report states. Of the Grauer’s gorillas, which the study is concerned with, less than 4,000 remain in the wild. The species is listed as critically endangered.

The study offers a couple of examples to illustrate the scope of the problem of uncaptured materials. In Germany, by 2035, research predicts that more than 8,000 tons of precious metals will lie in unrecycled mobile and smartphones. In China, by 2025, an estimated 9 tons of gold, 15 tons of silver and 3,100 tons of copper will lie in what will be about 0.35 billion unrecycled mobile and smartphones, the report states.

“For every 30 to 40 mobile phones that are recycled, on average, 1 gram of gold can be recovered,” said Dr. Carla Litchfield, the report’s lead author, in a statement. “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.”

With the goals of helping to protect gorilla habitats by educating consumers about mobile phone recycling and developing more effective mechanisms for collecting used phones, the study tracked and analyzed data regarding the efficacy of "They're Calling on You," a mobile phone recycling program that was operated by Zoos Victoria and a national campaign operating in Australian zoos. In 2009, Dr. Jane Goodall kicked off the national mobile recycling campaign at Melbourne Zoo. The study went on for six years.

The program components included outreach and marketing materials and informational talks, such as the “Keeper Talks,” which explained to zoo visitors the importance of mobile phone recycling. Researchers were able to track phone donations by using separate barcodes that were printed on recycling packages, which were then returned to Aussie Recycling Program in Victoria, Australia.

Over the six-year period (2009-2014), a total of 115,369 mobile phones were donated for recycling. The different collection campaigns included The Courier Collect initiative (50,883 mobile phone donations), which comprised 44 percent of the total, and the Static Display at Melbourne Zoo (29,778 mobile phone donations), which comprised 26 percent of the total. The remaining phones, 11 percent of the total, were collected at the Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo as a result of the Keeper Talks.

The researchers hope that the best practices from this study can be used to drive mobile phone recycling through other zoos and conservation organizations worldwide.

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