Your household probably has a few old cell phones lying around in a drawer – old models that got replaced when you upgraded. Most of us have some kind of ‘electronics graveyard’ of ancient phones, fried iPods and dead digital cameras in our homes.
Well, here’s a little something you probably didn’t know about these gadgets:
Nearly all of them are manufactured using a substance called Coltan, or Columbite-tantalite. It is used to make many small electronics components, most notably the batteries. 80% of the world’s Coltan comes from the war-torn region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), and I’m about to explain why you should do whatever you can to minimize your Coltan consumption.
Coltan – Just the Facts:
- Most of the world’s Coltan comes from the DRC, where the average wage is $10 a month, yet the price of Coltan can go as high as $650 a kilogram
- The Rwandan army, key instigators of the war in the Congo, made as much as $250 million selling Coltan in under 18 months, despite the fact that there is no Coltan in Rwanda
- Coltan and other minerals used in cell phone batteries are recyclable, yet tend to end up in landfills where they can poison groundwater, crops, livestock and local residents
- A recent UN report claimed that all parties involved in the war in the Congo have interests in Coltan mining, and derive a great deal of funding from its ‘systematic and extensive exploitation’ (source: http://www.cellular-news.com/coltan/)
In a nutshell, Coltan and other rare earth metals are the new blood diamonds.
There is a good chance that somebody was extorted, coerced or killed in order to get the minerals used to make your new iPhone. Profits from Coltan mining go directly to financing and equipping both sides in the conflict, extending it for years. UN analysts have claimed that Coltan and oil exploitation are the main reasons that the war in the DRC continues to this day.
What’s worse is that the price of Coltan has recently slumped, leading to widespread unemployment, increased exploitation of local miners and a great deal less Coltan-derived money in circulation amongst the poorest people in the DRC. This means that miners have to work harder, for longer hours, in increasingly more dangerous war zones, to find enough Coltan to support their families.
It is very easy to recycle your old electronics. So easy, in fact, that there are a number of websites that will send you a free-post envelope for you to put your phone in, and then pay you cash directly into your bank account for your phone. Unless it’s a relatively recent smart phone you won’t get much –$20 or so for a basic phone – but the point here isn’t really to make money.
What Happens to my Mobile?
- Most phones will be refurbished and re-sold. This is the least carbon-intensive and inexpensive way to recycle phones and electronics, and reduces the amount of Coltan consumed worldwide
- If the phone is too old or damaged it can be dismantled and the rare earth metals used in its construction recycled, re-smelted and re-used. This process is expensive, but carries a far lower cost in both carbon footprint and human suffering than mining and processing new Coltan.
Where Can I Send my Phone?
There are a number of companies who will send you a small amount of cash for your mobile, and recycle or re-use it. Here are a few:
UK and Europe: http://www.envirofone.com
United States: http://www.recellular.com/
If you’re interested in finding out more about Coltan exploitation, or find out how you can do your part to help alleviate the problem, here are some further reading resources:
- BBC News: Congo’s Coltan Rush
- Guns, Money and Cellphones
- Environmental and Social Impact of Cell Phone Batteries
- Coltan, Guerillas and Cellphones
- BBC News: Q&A on the Conflict in the DRC