Coltan, Gorillas, and E-Recycling: Why They’re All Tied Together

The average American household has 22 connected devices. (Deloitte, 2022) Every time a new electronic device is purchased, the old one is tossed in a landfill or thrown in a junk drawer to be forgotten.

Did you know your laptops, smartphones, video game consoles, and smart watches have contributed to the worldwide decline of the gorilla population? Electronic devices rely on components containing elements that are extracted from coltan, a mineral mined in the same geographical areas in which gorilla populations live. 

The increase in demand for new electronics causes an increase in mining of coltan and the destruction of gorilla habitats. But you can be part of the solution by recycling your old electronic devices.

What is coltan?

Coltan is short for columbite-tantalite, a dull, graphite colored metallic ore found mainly in the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a politically unstable, war-ravaged country in Africa.

When raw coltan ore is refined, it is separated into niobium and tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold an electrical charge. Tantalum is a key element in capacitors which controls the electrical current flow in circuit boards. Tantalum is found in virtually all smartphones, laptops, solar panels, and other electronic devices, and is also a vital component of electric vehicle batteries. Niobium is used to produce metal alloys because it improves their strength. Alloys that contain niobium are used in jet engines, structural elements for buildings and oil rigs, and gas pipelines.

Mined coltan covers the ground, its graphite gray color making it look like charcoal.

The challenge for the gorilla population and wildlife conservation is that coltan mining has wiped out gorilla habitats. Sadly, the population of Eastern lowland gorillas has declined by as much as 50% since the 1990s in the DRC.

The Democratic Republic of Congo produced 40% of the world’s coltan in 2019 (The Economist, 2021) and currently accounts for 70% of global cobalt production, a critical element used in producing batteries for electric vehicles. (NS Energy, 2021) A Wildlife Conservation Society study linked illegal coltan mining to gorilla populations declining 77% from the previous two decades. (WCS, 2016)

How is coltan mined?

Coltan mining is a relatively crude process, like the California gold rush of the mid-1800s. Teams of workers dig large pits in streams and riverbeds and dig though the surface dirt and mud to reach the coltan hidden deeper underground. Then a water and mud mixture is placed in large tubs, where the heavier coltan settles to the bottom.

A group of coltan miners in the Congo stand waist deep in brown, muddy water as they use shovels to remove coltan from the water.

A coltan miner in the DRC can produce around 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of coltan a day. Depending on the amount of tantalum in the coltan ore, 1 kg of coltan can trade for between $35 and $52. The average worker in Congo makes around $10 a month, while a coltan miner makes between $10 to $50 a week. (ABC News) Because of its pay, the appeal to mine coltan, legally or illegally, is strong.

How can you help endangered gorillas?

Our modern world revolves around electronic devices – from our smartphones to game consoles to electric vehicles, and society is dependent on them so the demand for coltan remains high (and is increasing). But you can help!

When you get a new smartphone, laptop, or other electronic device, the old one shouldn’t just be tossed in a drawer or closet. Your older, unused electronics can be recycled.

E-recycling is a way to help reduce the amount of conflict minerals extracted to produce electronics, but we have some work to do. According to Global E-Waste Monitor, the U.S. only recycled around 15% of its e-waste in 2019 and the value of raw materials in e-waste is estimated to be almost $7.5 billion!

If we can mine the huge amount of materials in old electronic devices by recycling them, we can reduce the amount of new raw materials we need to extract from the earth, and decrease the disturbance created in gorilla habitats.

How does MCPC help endangered gorillas?

MCPC offers IT asset disposition services for corporate clients at our regional locations where we dismantle devices and their components are separated by type, such as power cords, plastic housings, metal brackets, circuit boards, LCD screens, etc. Then, these components are processed by specialized recycling partners so they can be repurposed and used to manufacture new products.

Our processes meet strict e-recycling standards and we never incinerate it and never export components containing toxic materials to developing countries. Plus, we provide transparency into how and when devices are recycled and can prove that they are disposed of sustainably and in compliance with environmental regulations.

From time to time, we also partner with community organizations to sponsor e-recycling events that allow area residents to drop off their older and unused electronics to be safely and securely recycled. Any funds earned from these events are donated to support gorilla conservation.

MCPC also fully funded and produced the Gorilla Experience at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, located in the Primate, Cats & Aquatics Building. The interactive exhibit highlights the relationship between protection of gorillas and electronics recycling. 

Become part of the solution!

Here are several ways you can help right here at home:

  • Never, ever throw an old and unused electronic device in the trash
  • Always recycle your old devices
  • Reduce the number of devices you use
  • Hold on to your devices longer before replacing them
  • Spread the word about why gorillas need our help!

We’re the Outcome Engineers. MCPC is a global endpoint management company, founded in 2002, and our approach inspires not just endpoint defense, but business offense. By protecting your devices, bringing simplicity to endpoint management complexity, and empowering employee performance, we reduce your business risk and increases digital innovation. Our consultative approach creates a true partnership where your endpoints are just the starting point.