While mobile phones bring huge benefits – such as accessibility to information, ability to set up mobile payments and help with starting businesses – what happens to these devices in many countries in Africa and Asia is anything but smart.
Around two billion mobile telephones are sold around the world each year. Only half a billion are reused or recycled, while the rest end their life contaminating the earth in countries with unsafe and unregulated recycling practices, in illegals landfills, or just hanging around in drawers. These ‘junk phones’ don’t just lead to health and environmental problems. They are also a waste of valuable raw materials in a time when access to tech is still not for everyone.
Inspired by his project bringing mobile phones to Tanzania for reuse, in 2012 Dutch social entrepreneur Joost de Kluijver started Closing the Loop to take on that giant e-waste (electronic waste) mountain – by building a ‘closed loop’ process. Hence the name.
Closing the Loop simply buys scrap phones (in collaboration with local partners in Africa and Asia) and sends them in low cost shipments to the best recyclers in the world. There are only five factories that responsibly recycle phones, returning raw materials to the production chain, turning the waste into precious metals in Europe. “We’re turning waste into a new source of income,” Kluijver explains, “and the reuse of materials such as gold, silver, copper and aluminium is creating awareness about the benefits of responsible recycling.”
For Kluijver, being the “telecom industry’s garbage men” has been eye-opening. The first project saw his team partner with Fairphone in 2014 to collect 3.1 tonnes of scrap phones in Ghana and send them to Belgium. They collaborated with a local businessman offering Ghanaians the opportunity to ship out 65,000 phones to the best recyclers in the world – and get paid 2-5 times a normal salary in the process. Next they expanded to Rwanda, Mali, Zambia, The Gambia, South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi, Cameroon and Uganda.
Over one million phones have since been collected and 2,000 people are benefitting from their approach already, but through more collaborations Closing the Loop aims for 80% of all mobiles to be recycled over ten years – and they are currently developing plans to move onto scrap batteries and chargers. They also hope to bring their urban-mined metals into Fairphone’s production process, creating world’s first phones made out of circular metals – which is not a loopy idea. Because their long term plan is to be made redundant.
AtlasAction: For every mobile phone your employees use, Closing the Loop also offer to save one from e-waste dumps. They call this One for One and want the proposition to be normal in the telecom industry. Keen to know more? Locate their collection projects and watch this documentary on urban mining.
Joost de Kluijver