Forest is Calling
By 2020 it’s estimated that 3.6 billion smartphones will be in circulation worldwide. With an average lifespan of 2 years before upgrade or replacement, the number of unwanted devices potentially entering the waste stream has and will continue to grow dramatically. However, 99% of materials can be recovered when mobile devices are recycled. Recycling old and unwanted devices not only keeps them out of landfill, but has the equivalent environmental benefit of planting one new tree per year and reduces the need for key components containing minerals such as gold, cobalt, and coltan to be newly produced.
Using coltan as an example, each smartphone contains approximately 10-40mg of coltan, largely found in capacitors which store and regulate energy flow within the device. In 2017 almost 30% of the world’s coltan was produced in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. This region is home to the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) and the endangered eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii). Mining of coltan and other minerals including gold, cobalt, cassiterite (tin ore), and wolframite (tungsten) has been identified as the primary threat to both ape species due to bushmeat hunting associated with mining activities. Although mining in protected areas, where the large majority of the ape populations occur, is prohibited, the small-scale artisanal nature of the mines and presence of armed militia groups prevents proper patrolling and enforcement by eco-guards. In Kahuzi- Biega National Park, the most important conservation site for Grauer’s gorillas and a key site for eastern chimpanzees, populations have declined by 87% and 22% respectively.
Control by armed militia over the mining of minerals in EDRC has also fuelled human conflict and perpetuated unsustainable livelihoods. Many people in the affected communities have sought refuge in the forest, resulting in increased hunting of wildlife, including chimpanzees and gorillas, for food. Mining also makes it easier for poachers involved in the illegal bushmeat trade to extend their access further into forests, as the development of infrastructure such as roads is often associated with the establishment of new mine sites.
Recycling unwanted devices, extending their useful life, and buying secondhand devices when it’s necessary to get a replacement can both reduce the need for minerals to be mined from crucial great ape habitat and help raise funds to support JGI’s work to protect animals, people, and the environment.