Axis of Eco – Guerilla recycling
By Axis of Eco
Published on January 27, 2010
Have an old phone? Will probably have another one lying around after you get the next iWhatever? You can recycle it without spending a penny – not thanks to local government agencies, but to forward-thinking entrepreneurs and charities.
“We are completely focused on gathering old cell phones before they hit the landfill,” says Eric Ronay, CEO of Eco-Cell in Louisville, Kentucky, one of dozens of organisations that collect old phones across Europe and North America. “Mobile phones are so much easier to recycle than big items like monitors. And cell phones are valuable in and of themselves.” Which is why he collects them: for the gold and precious metals, too valuable to throw away.
In a perfect world you’d be able to easily recycle every shred of paper, plastic and metal that comes through your front door. But city programs rarely take more than a handful of items – typically tin cans, plastic containers (but only of a few polymer varieties), newspapers and magazines. And even then too much winds up in landfill anyways – more than 80 per cent of the Canadian population for example has access to plastic bottle recycling pickups straight from their home, but barely 30 per cent of bottles are recycled. Brits manage about the same rate.
And that’s the simplest item – glance around your house and you’ll instantly see dozens of things you can’t chuck in the recycling: televisions, picture frames, telephone cables, dvds, scissors, printers, speakers, ballpoint pens. Each item made from a number of different materials, each item a pain for facilities to take apart for recycling.
The most hazardous of course: electronics. Complex and intricate, every monitor, computer, and camera is made up of dozens to hundreds of different metals, polymers and chemicals, making them enormously difficult to recycle.
The UN estimates up to 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste is created each year – and little of it is recycled where it was bought. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition estimates that as much as 80 per cent of e-waste is shipped to Pakistan, China and India, where it is often broken down by hand, exposing the workers to high levels of toxic heavy metals like mercury and lead and hazardous chemicals such as brominated flame retardants.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most numerous items: mobile cell phones. As they continue to increase in sophistication while decreasing in price, and are so easily lost, they have one of the highest turnover rates of any e-item; the average phone is replaced in 14 months. Fauna and Flora International estimates that in the UK alone 1,712 phones are replaced every hour. Americans chuck about 130 million a year.
The boom in cell phones over the past quarter century (as well as other gadgets like games consoles, dvd players and laptops) led in 2000 to a spike in the price of coltan, a metallic ore that contains the metal tantalum, used to make transistors. Almost 80 per cent of the world’s coltan sits in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and after the leap in price to $480/kilogram in 2001 tens of thousands of illegal miners flooded the parks of the country, destroying huge swathes of forest in the process.
The price spike also fueled the civil war and an influx of foreign troops to plunder the metal. The most recent survey estimated more than 5.4 million people to have died in “Africa’s World War,” and though the conflict officially ended in 2003 the region continues to suffer.
Deforestation and the incursion of poachers into the region resulted in dramatic declines in gorilla populations – the eastern lowland subspecies fell by an estimated 90 per cent. Gorilla numbers continue to fall, and as populations become smaller and more splintered, inbreeding and exposure to disease will continue to threaten them. The IUCN estimates gorillas could vanish by 80 per cent over three generations.
There is one small thing you can do: have your phone recycled to reduce demand for coltan. Though few government bodies collect cell phones (the answer from a local helpline in south London: “I can give you the address for the local rubbish dump”), small businesses and charities the world over have filled the void. In Canada Recycle My Cell collects them through the mail, free of charge. In the UK Fauna and Flora International even covers the postage.
Eco-Cell in the US collected more than 70,000 phones last year, up from just 9,000 when Ronay started with the company in 2002.
But the number collected is still dwarfed by the number thrown away. “I think most people just don’t know that there’s a way for them to recycle it,” says Ronay. “It’s not something the cell phone manufacturing companies promote – they are more interesting in selling new models than recycling the old ones. But we’ll take them – we still get old cell phones from the 1990s sent to us.”
What could be done to get more people to send their phones in? It’s already free.
“The answer is education: people need to know that consumerism is harmful in ways we never intended,” he thinks. “But once they see a tangible connection like between a phone and a forest they are motivated to do something. And if they can make dolphin-safe tuna, why can’t they make a gorilla-friendly phone?”