In a new study, researchers are exploring the unexpected link between mobile phone recycling and the disappearance of gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
After years of loyal services, you decide to replace your old phone with a new state-of-the-art smartphone. Three options are available to you: throw it away, recycle it, or keep it in a drawer. Of these options, only one is the right one. As for the other two, they have a worrying link with the decimation of gorilla populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Coltan at the heart of the problem
The thing responsible for this phenomenon is coltan. It is from this black or brown-red mineral that tantalum is extracted, an essential element in the manufacture of mobile phones and many other electronic devices. Unfortunately, it is also responsible for many deaths, both among humans and animals.
Coltan is mainly extracted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which holds between 60 and 80% of the world's reserves. For many years, it has been at the heart of the war that is tearing the country apart: one of the most deadly conflicts since the Second World War, with 6 million deaths. Its extraction also threatens the local ecosystem, including gorilla habitats.
A danger for gorillas
‘The extraction of coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo takes place in protected areas, such as Kahuzi-Biega National Park. It is unregulated and threatens endangered species such as eastern lowland gorillas’, warn the researchers in their study, published in the journal PLOS One. According to great apes expert and conservation psychologist Carla Litchfield, if the compounds that are causing these conflicts are recovered from old phones, the incentive to extract them from gorilla habitats will diminish.
‘From 30 to 40 recycled mobile phones, one gram of gold can be recovered on average,’ she says. ‘As mobile phone sales skyrocket and gold content increases in some smartphones, natural gold sources are expected to run out by 2030.’ Researchers estimate that within a few decades, several tens of thousands of tons of precious metals will be sitting in drawers around the world.
‘The other problem is that if people get rid of their old phone, most of them throw it in the trash, and it ends up in a dump where it releases toxic metals.’ With a 73-93% decline in the gorilla population in recent years, deadly conflict, and a fragile environment, it's time for all of us to take our old phones out of the drawer and find them a recycling spot.