Recycle Your Cell Phone and Maybe Save a Life – National Consumers League

by Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition

Each week, more than 2 million phones are de-activated. Did you know that fewer than 20 percent of them are recycled each year? According to Earthworks, a group involved in cell phone recycling, there are 500 million used cell phones either in landfills or sitting in drawers.

The phones are an environmental time bomb. “Cell phones contain toxic materials such as lead, mercury, beryllium, arsenic, cadmium, and antimony,” notes Earthworks. “If incinerated these substances can pollute the air, in landfills they can leach into groundwater. Many of the materials found in cell phones are also on the EPA’s list of persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs). Because PBTs accumulate in fatty tissue of humans and animals, the toxins are gradually concentrated, putting those at the top of the food chain at the greatest risk, especially children.”

But there is another reason to recycle these de-activated phones: you may be saving a child’s life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the central African nation formerly known as the Belgian Congo, where rampant war and violence have cost between five and six million lives in the last decade. More lives have been lost in the Congo through violence and war than in any other country in the world since World War II. And the nature of the violence has shocked the world. Rape has become a weapon of the civil war that grips the country to the extent that advocates in the country say it has become a “norm” — an estimated 200,000 women, including many children, have been raped in the conflict, according to the United Nations.

What do phones, war, and child safety have to do with each other?

The DRC’s mineral resources are among the richest in the world. According to one estimate, the Congolese—who on average earn less than 50 cents a day—are walking on ground containing more than $300 billion worth of minerals. And many of those minerals—Coltan, copper, and tungsten—end up in electronic equipment like cell phones and laptops.

Many human rights advocates believe that the DRC’s vast resources are the underlying cause—and sometimes the direct cause—of the wars and violence that have ripped through the country in waves for decades. Many of the warring groups finance their armies with trade of the mined materials. In some cases, children are forced to mine the minerals—as well as gold and diamonds—out of the earth. Some work willingly, but are far too young to perform work as dangerous as mining, especially in a war zone. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, 40 percent of boys and girls between age 10 and 14 work in the DRC, despite laws that say no child under the age of 15 should work.

Often the children are re-victimized when they are forcibly turned into child soldiers.

The constant war has led to a breakdown of society, causing a witches’ brew of lethal health problems that, according to the New York Times earlier this year, was killing 45,000 Congolese every month. “The mortality rate in Congo is 57 percent higher than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, the survey found. Particularly hard hit were young children, who are especially susceptible to diseases like malaria, measles, dysentery and typhoid, which can kill when medicine is not available,” reported Lydia Polgreen in January. Nearly half of the more than five million dead were children under the age of five.

In addition to the human toll, the mining of these minerals has also led to a reduction of gorilla habitat, endangering some of the world’s most magnificent animals.

The world, for the most part, turns a blind eye to the turmoil in the Congo. However, there are groups—at least a couple of dozen around the country—doggedly pushing the mining companies and the electronics companies to set up a mineral tracing system so that minerals from areas of conflict can be barred from the world markets. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) introduced legislation in the last Congress toward that goal. The National Consumers League (NCL) has recently joined the effort to bring about a tracing system along with the International Labor Right Forum, a member of the NCL-coordinated Child Labor Coalition and one of the lead organizers of the effort.

Before you throw that old cell phone in the trash, remember the true value of the mineral contents in terms of the lives lost and damaged in mining areas. Please recycle.

[If you can’t find a recycling site in your area, Earthworks provides free shipping for recycling phones. EPA also has links to corporate recycling programs at its site.]