Meet The Dutch Social Entrepreneur Who Wants To Destroy Your Mobile Phone For You – Forbes
Itâs hard to imagine life without a mobile phone today. But as important as the device is, the lifespan of a mobile phone model is less than three years. Creeping commoditization. Then what? Toss it on a garbage heap somewhere as you would a cheap T-shirt? (Not recommended!) Disposing of electronic waste is not so easy. Most people hand their old phones into their telecoms provider and donât think any more about it.
Joost de Kluijver thinks a lot about it. So much so the Dutch entrepreneur started a social project called Closing the Loop â literally closing the loop between the manufacturer, the buyer, the disposal process and the manufacturer. The aim is to create more sustainable telecom use and make the disposal process less toxic. Because, at the final stages, it is toxic.
Today, industry statistics suggest that an increasing number of used phones are recycled. Out of those, some 70% are sent to Third World countries â to NGOs, for example, which distribute them among various populations. âWe say, ârepair it and put it back in the system,ââ de Kluijver told me in an interview in Amsterdam for this blog. âUse it for its full life cycle.â But eventually, even recycled phones die â and if they die in undeveloped parts of Africa and Asia, they will often be dumped or burned as waste, releasing toxicity into the atmosphere and environment.
Recycling Isnât Enough
De Kluijver â who had been working as a social entrepreneur in a company he co-owned, since 2010, set up the Netherlands-based social enterprise Closing the Loop (CTL) in 2012, as an NGO. He turned his organization into a for-profit company in 2014, distributing used phones in Africa and Asia and tackling the disposal problem: he buys back the old phones from repair shops, private homes, churches â wherever people were likely to congregate. The business plan is simple; de Kluijver pays people in, say, Africa, for their broken phones, and sells them on (by the pound or kilo) to certified recycling companies â who extract and keep the metals (such as gold, copper and tin) contained therein. Thereafter these metals can go back into the electronics manufacturing supply chain.
âThird world countries donât have the technology or the infrastructure to do this kind of work, or to dispose of electronic waste sustainably,â he points out. In Europe, you find recycling projects like this via retailers such as Monoprix in France or Media Market in the Netherlands. But while de Kluijver may have the contacts, wherewithal and resources to collect and ship extinct phones from Africa to chosen, smelters, handling the on-the-ground logistics takes grit, cunning, patience and deep pockets.
âWe ship in containers, and it takes between 200,000 and 400,000 mobile phones to fill a container,â he explains. And getting the goods to port from land-locked countries such as Rwanda and Uganda (two of the countries where CTL is active) takes dealing with roads and truckers and permits. It takes time and money and itâs a logistical nightmare, mainly because our transportation requirements and plans have never been done here before.â
Tough on Cash Flow
Itâs also tough on cash flow: in most cases, de Kluijver must pay cash for the collected phones and for the shipping – up-front. But he receives payment for the phones only when they are recycled. And with various (expensive) permits that must be obtained, not to mention transport costs, the time between collecting the phones and paying the charges and delivering the phones to a smelter and receiving payment can take a year or more. âWe made a lot of mistakes,â he admits wryly.
De Kluijver has streamlined the project, winnowing down the target countries to five from the original 11, and cultivating corporate partners. Sims Recycling Solutions handles the smelting. Sims along with companies such as Fairphone, ING Bank and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol provide logistical and financial support as well. That was not an easy nut to crack at the beginning, either.
âWe didnât really know which department in a company would handle this sort of thing,â he explained. âCSR people said âgreatâ, but didnât know whom to convince within a company. Same with IT people. Marketing people had no KPIs for recycling. It was a challenge. We ended up talking with all three departments in companies and finally after 3-4 years we were able to bring the project forward.â
Indeed, the first two container shipments from Uganda and Rwanda â containing over 500,000 end-of-life phones collected with the help of local agencies â have only just arrived in the port of Antwerp, Belgium, in mid-July. But since 2012, de Kluijverâs NGO efforts have resulted in more than 1.3-million scrap phones from being incarcerated in a dump somewhere, polluting the environment.
More Phones, More Countries
âWe want to provide the global electronics industry with sustainably-sourced materials as well as clean up the electronic waste in countries that currently donât have the means to responsibly recycle mobile phones,” he says. “This project is mainly a positive story: it shows that organizations are willing to invest in taking responsibility beyond their own use, and they can profit from it.â
Whatâs next? âMore recycling in more countries, for more partners and customers,â de Kluijver says. And with the exponential growth in mobile phone use globally, that is likely to take up a lot of his time for the foreseeable future.
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