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Salvaging ‘lost phones’ from Africa’s waste graveyard

Around 2 million mobile phones have been diverted from e-scrap burning operations in developing countries thanks to Closing the Loop. Up to 95% of precious metals that would otherwise be lost forever can now be recycled by Umicore in Belgium. Dutch entrepreneur Joost de Kluijver explains his recycling mission.

What is Closing the Loop all about?

‘We collect and buy old phones in developing markets to enable proper recycling. What we strive for, essentially, is more sustainable usage of mobile phones. In the world today, they are pretty much a consume-and-discard type of product. Some have called us the garbage men of the telecoms industry since we help clean up the mess. But mostly, we want to make sure mobile phones get recycled properly. In the 15 years that I’ve been active in the telecom industry, what I have tried to do is make the sector more clean and more innovative.’

What was your specific mission when you started out?

‘It is clear to me that, on the one hand, you have a huge demand for metals like gold, copper and rare earths. And on the other hand, there is a huge supply of metals just waiting to be recovered – metals that cannot be recycled locally. It’s a ridiculous situation made worse by corruption and poor government management. People wonder why no-one is stepping in, but the thing is that commercial parties are driven by the desire to do good business. So we wanted to do two things: to empower local entrepreneurs living near dumping sites; and to boost recycling and reuse.’

Check out the phone recycling photo gallery here.

How far has your venture come since the early years?

‘During our pilot phase in 2012, we were present in three countries: Ghana, Uganda and Zambia. This has grown to 12 countries over the last couple of years and we are currently working with around 2500 people. We collected around half a million phones last year. This year, we will probably reach 1.5 million. Based on our scalable business model and partnerships with recycling leaders like Umicore and Sims Recycling Solutions, we can expand to just about any country in the world. I estimate that around 150 countries would benefit from having a phone recycling initiative in place. At the moment, we are focusing on African countries like Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, Cameroon and Rwanda where we can achieve the biggest results with our local partners.’

There have been allegations that the e-scrap problem in Africa is ‘exaggerated’. What are your thoughts?

‘I’ve visited the infamous dumping ground at Agbogbloshie in Ghana, which is as big as a village. There is so much waste there, it’s unbelievable. The ground is scorched and full of heavy metals; the water is bubbling with toxic chemicals. It’s just too bad that the media focuses so much on this side of the industry – on the “problem” side, so to speak. E-waste is a sad story. We, however, are all about the solution. We’re about creating a continuous loop and continuously adding value to discarded phones. This is a powerful and optimistic narrative, not a sad story at all. It allows phone producers to create a product that never becomes an unwanted product.’

What has been the highlight for you so far?

‘Receiving the shipment of 700 000 phones from Uganda and Rwanda in one go (August ’17) was definitely a milestone for us. The deal was so long in the making because acquiring the necessary permits for shipments can be very difficult in some parts of the world. I am relieved that we can now finally start recovering the metals.’

How did people in developing markets initially respond to your circular economy message?

‘Circular thinking is hardly a concern in developing countries in Africa and Asia. You have to realise that burning and crushing e-scrap is the only thing they can do over there to make a living off these materials. There is no alternative. There is simply no recycling infrastructure, nor laws or facilities that enable recycling. The people participate in our collection scheme because of the financial incentive. We give them about 30 Euro cents for every phone they hand in, or around Euro 5 per kg.’

What have been the biggest challenges for you and your team so far?

‘Physically collecting phones is something we’ve proved we can do together with local partners. More tricky are the logistics and legal affairs that come with such a global enterprise. We only work with big shipping lines like Maersk. But even they don’t usually do much business in Africa. You can imagine that getting the paperwork ready in time in a country like Uganda can be a bit of a nightmare – partly because this type of export has not been done before in such remote areas, especially not in such massive quantities. We’ve had to educate logistics companies over there on how this works. Our local partners suddenly had to follow not just national but international laws. We needed permits to collect discarded phones and special permits to export them. It’s bizarre, but it has taken us almost two years to acquire a permit in Ghana allowing us to export e-waste that cannot be recycled locally.’

Are local authorities offering their co-operation?

‘In Ghana, besides needing support from the nation’s environment ministry, we also had to clear things with the department for gold exports. A lot of parties feel like they have something to say about our concept. They don’t always agree with each other, resulting in months of delays. We ran into a lot of red tape, and still do, forcing us to spend many months in continuous discussions with our everyone involved. To be honest, I have had to block my emotions a bit on several occasions. African business ethics are vastly different to those in Europe: for example, people may accept bribes. We could not allow corruption to be part of our business model because, if you do, you can’t prove the scalability of your business. Luckily, the time spent waiting for shipments is decreasing – to roughly a year or so – but it’s still not very short. Patience is key.’

You have a Master’s degree in business. How did you transition into the business of sustainability?

‘You might say that I picked up the recycling habits of my parents. In our household, there was a lot of focus on having a sustainable lifestyle, so we were sorting trash and returning recyclables, and not using too much energy. During my studies, the topics of social business and corporate responsibility weren’t really on the agenda. Later I realised I wanted to do more than just make money. I wanted to run a smart business. I suppose it’s also in our society’s DNA. People in other countries sometimes accuse the Dutch of being stingy, don’t they? For us, I suppose it makes a lot of sense not to waste resources.’

Could share some details about your partnership with Sims Recycling Solutions?

‘Together with Sims, CTL started the Rethink programme this year. It basically allows companies to reduce their mobile footprint by giving phones a second life in developing countries. Repaired phones made by a leading brand still last an average of four years while cheap phones produced in Africa often break after only six months. Also, for every mobile phone purchased by companies which support the scheme, Rethink saves one phone from e-waste dumps in developing countries as well as collecting and recycling handhelds once they are discarded. Sims oversees the materials processing part of this initiative.’

Do you think that leading electronics manufacturers are taking enough responsibility regarding eco-design and recycling?

‘Manufacturers should do what they are good at, and that is making products. Hopefully, they are products that are designed well. However, they should not get too caught up in the recycling scene. We all have our roles to play. If you demand that a party that produces products also be responsible for the complete lifecycle of a product – including the logistics, etc – then their ambition will simply be to meet government-mandated obligations. This method is not automatically a recipe for success because not all producers are good at collecting waste. There are plenty of specialist organisations that can take care of this. I do foresee that big brands like Samsung and Apple will have to become more resilient as resources become increasingly scarce in the not-too-distant future.’

Where do you hope Closing the Loop will be 10 years from now?

‘We have evolved from just buying phones from informal market players and small repair shops to also working with well-known formal organisations. For example, a new collection partner of ours in Rwanda is telecoms leader Tigo. Working with big companies like this offers huge scaling-up potential for CLT. Looking ahead, I believe it would make sense if CTL would also act as a consultant, connecting industry experts and allowing them to solve the practical issues as much as possible – offering advice on sustainable electronics recycling practices across the globe.’

This interview was published ina previous issue of Recycling International. Browse our online library here.

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