Outdated cell phones, abandoned in drawers, still contain valuable components that could help protect endangered gorilla habitat halfway around the world.

At the Toronto Zoo, a pioneering initiative called the Phone Apes program is transforming discarded electronics into a lifeline for endangered gorillas. By recycling cell phones, the program not only mitigates electronic waste, but also aims to curb the destructive mining of coltan in the gorillas' fragile habitats of the Congo rainforests.

Since its inception, the Phone Apes program has collected close to 57,248 cell phones and 65,750 kg of other electronics while raising $38,100 for great ape conservation in Africa. The funds support various projects, including veterinary services at Virunga National Park, Pan Africa Sanctuaries, Ape Action Africa and the Fernan Vaz-Gabon Gorilla Project, said Kyla Greenham, manager of conservation programs and environment at the Toronto Zoo.

“The mining of coltan in the rainforest habitats of the Republic of Congo has negative impacts on Eastern Lowland gorilla populations through poaching, pest management, habitat destruction and pollution,” said Greenham.

Habitat loss poses a critical threat to gorilla populations, driven primarily by mining activities for charcoal and coltan, as well as logging for timber and fuel wood, and the expansion of agricultural lands.

Greenham explains that the Phone Apes program was inspired by the need to educate the public about the impact of the electronics industry on gorilla populations. Tantalum, a crucial element in cell phones, laptops and other devices, can either be refined from newly mined coltan or fully retrieved from recycled electronics, reducing the need for new mining operations.

At the Toronto Zoo, a pioneering initiative called the Phone Apes program is transforming discarded electronics into a lifeline for endangered gorillas. Photo by Abdul Matin Sarfraz for Canada's National Observer

The public perception of recycling has taken a beating lately. Exposés have revealed that many materials — plastics in particular — are more often discarded than recycled, even when they’re put in the proper bins. But this program claims a high degree of success.

The recycling process for the collected electronics is handled by GreenTec, a company contracted by the Toronto Zoo, Greenham said. The recycling takes place in Mississauga and Cambridge, Ontario, where nearly 100 per cent of the materials in cell phones and other electronics — metals such as tantalum, gold, copper and mercury, as well as diamonds and arsenic — are recycled.

Since its inception, the Phone Apes program has collected close to 57,248 cell phones and 65,750 kg of other electronics, while raising $38,100 for great ape conservation in Africa. #Toronto Zoo #Gorillas #Phone Apes #recycling cellphones

The program claims success overseas, too: Greenham says that with its support, three sanctuary facilities have been built for orphaned and injured animals. The program also aids in rehabilitating and releasing wild great apes such as chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobo, supports ongoing veterinary services and medicine and has contributed to replanting over 500 acres of rainforest.

The zoo offers landfill-free cell phone recycling to schools, corporations and partners throughout Ontario. Individuals can mail their cell phones to the zoo or drop them at the front entrance or gorilla habitat in the Africa Pavilion. Individuals and companies can request a free collection box from the PhoneApes program via email.

There are several collection locations, including City of Toronto civic buildings and local businesses and schools. Currently, 38 schools and businesses have collection boxes, in addition to the six permanent Toronto locations listed on the PhoneApes webpage. The zoo also hosts e-waste collection events for the public once or twice a year.