Presented here is an edited version of a chapter I wrote for a book a couple of years ago and remembers Joe Pearce Willis, our son.
Fred Pearce and Sarah Willis
Edited extract from Fred Pearce’s book “Confessions of an Eco-Sinner” (Eden Project Books, 2008).
Our household survived without a mobile phone for a long time. Even as a journalist, I have resisted. The first arrived when our son Joe bought a bog-standard Nokia in 2003. Always on the look-out for a bargain, he paid £10 at Carphone Warehouse in Clapham Junction. It did the job. Or it did until – and there is no sensible way of writing this without sharing the family tragedy with you – until his death in 2005. In fact it did the worst job of all. After Joe collapsed while out jogging at university, a victim of undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, the nurse at Leeds Infirmary found “MUM” in the memory and used it to tell us the news.
Joe didn’t use his phone for long. Most mobiles are discarded within two years – that’s 15 million every year in Britain alone. The value of an individual metal in an individual phone is probably only a few pence. That’s why most phones end up in the local landfill. But collectively this is crazy. All that copper and silver and gold and tantalum wasted.
All that arsenic and antimony and lead and other toxins leaching into the ground. So deciding what to do with Joe’s old phone, I pondered the alternatives.
Recycling seemed the obvious bet. The new European directive on electronic waste, charming called the WEEE directive, is big on ensuring that the materials get recycled, but much of this seems to be carried out illegally and dangerously in China and India. In any case, even if we couldn’t prolong Joe’s life, why not prolong the life of his phone? Find someone else who wants it. I set out to explore the options.
The mobile phone industry has begun take-back schemes. In the UK, the main one is called Fonebak. It claimed to have processed 6 million phones by the end of 2006, of which around two-thirds were re-used and a third sent for recycling. But I read an independent study which said that these schemes were “fragmented and poorly organised” and many of the recycled phones were exported to untraceable companies. I wanted to be certain where Joe’s phone went.
Then I spotted a sign at a shop in Sussex promising to collect old phones, and send them for re-sale in Africa. Their agent, Phones For Africa, turned out to be a small enterprise, collecting around 60 phones a month and run by a photographer in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. Paul Joynson-Hicks was the nephew of the chairman of shop, called Cookshop. This was the chance I had been looking for. I already had a trip planned to East Africa. And everyone along the line seemed keen to help me hand on Joe’s phone in person to a new owner.
I gave the phone to Carly in Cookshop’s Chichester store. She had heard all about my scheme, and everything worked like clockwork. Paul was a bit vague about how the phone got to Dar. Import duty is a bit of an issue, I gathered. But two months later, on a hot and dusty Saturday afternoon, I found myself standing at a tiny kiosk in a litter-strewn slum street in inner-city Dar, briefly reacquainted with Joe’s phone.
Paul introduced me to Nasser, his technical wizard, who had checked and refurbished the phone. It almost looked like new. Then my buyer showed up. And that was when I had a bit of a surprise. Ally got out his cash and handed over 40,000 Tanzanian shillings. That was the equivalent of £17. But, two years before, Joe had bought the phone new for only £10. Paul smiled when I asked about this later. “That’s the going rate here,” he said. “Actually I marked the price down a bit to make sure you got a sale.” He said the locals like slightly bashed reconditioned phones because they know they are not counterfeit – unlike some on sale in shops down the street.
There wasn’t exactly a roaring trade at the kiosk that day. A recent spate of power cuts made it increasingly difficult for people to recharge their phones. So I didn’t quibble. The deal was done. Ally, a student of similar age to Joe, was unaware of how market forces had played out in his case. But he said the phone was cheap. And he was happy to be the second of four adult brothers in his family to get a phone. His father, a preacher, had given him the money. Then, he headed off for evening prayers at the local mosque.
So my buyer was happy. And, in the end, my qualms about the price were mollified by the discovery of what happened to the money raised by the sale. The next night, Paul took me to a workshop behind his studio on the city’s outskirts. It was dark because the power was out again. In the gloom, he called over Justin. It took a while. Justin had no legs, only a couple of stumps. But he did have a blowtorch.
Justin, it turned out, was one of a team of 25 polio victims that Paul had recruited over a couple of years, mostly from a nearby traffic island favoured by beggars. The profits from selling phones like Joe’s went into training them as welders, and buying equipment. Paul – a gangling, amiable guy able to win over industrialists as well as beggars – purloined scrap metal and surplus stock from local traders, and the team was turning out a constant stream of rather fetching metal sculptures that sold in local art stores, on the internet and through direct commissions.
Wildlife sculptures are the big sellers. The Wonder Welders catalogue (check it at www.wonderwelders.org) includes dragonflies and gazelles, crabs and turtles, rabbits and giraffes, crocodiles and chameleons, antelopes and aardvarks. Once, the welders made a life-size metal rhino to a detailed spec drawn up by a local zoologist. More modestly, I brought home a small warthog made of nails, a spring, a couple of links from a bicycle chain and some copper wire for its bushy tail. It is sitting on my desk as I type this — a strange swap for Joe’s phone.
In the back streets of Dar this hive of activity was hugely impressive. So I was happy. Joe would have been pleased that his phone got a new life. A student got a reconditioned phone at less than Dar shop prices. Polio victims are getting off the streets and into creative jobs that are the envy of their fully-limbed mates. Some of Dar’s growing piles of scrap metal get recycled. And I get to smile at that warthog and think of Joe.