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Picking up what others leave behind: MAGIS Italy project turns waste into sustainable investments

16 May 2011

Used mobile phones for recycling. Photo credits: MAGIS Italy

Maurizio Debanne

The diagnosis is not new, but its importance is often underestimated: the flow of materials within industrialised countries and their accelerated market processes generate highly increased consumption of resources, many of which are scarcely renewable.

By throwing away household items, office supplies and other such items, tons of resources are wasted, even though they may contain substances as tantalite, copper, and other metallic mineral resources. A significant economic potential is therefore lost every year. New analysis of production and consumption flows show how useful it could be to collect what we leave behind and to recycle it, particularly those materials whose production is costly and makes a huge environmental impact.

A vivid example is that of mobile phone technology. Although the production of mobile phones requires relatively scarce mineral resources such as tantalite, the general lifespan of a mobile phone in Western industrialised countries is a mere two years, after which it is often thrown away or left forgotten in a drawer.

MAGIS, an Italian development NGO founded by the Jesuits in 1988, has proposed its own response to this challenge and successfully introduced a system for recycling and reusing such resources. MAGIS (Movimento e Azione dei Gesuiti Italiani per lo sviluppo) suggests that rather than abandon or throw out such devices, people should deliver them to one of 400 collection points located throughout Italy.

Since the campaign was launched in 2007, 80,000 mobile phones have been collected. The ensuing commitment was surprisingly high, notably in the Naples region which recently became notorious for its escalating waste crisis, with tons of litter lying in the streets because of failures in refuse disposal.

In this tough environment, MAGIS’ campaign conveyed a double message. First is that waste, at least in part, is a precious raw material. Secondly, to collect and to separate high-value materials can be an effective way of fulfilling the ethical imperative of taking care of those who are less fortunate than most people in the West. Due to MAGIS’ project, old mobile phones are used to build up funding for cooperation projects in developing regions.

The key is to use the latest recycling methods. A specialist partner company separates those devices which are beyond use from those that still work or can easily be repaired. The unusable elements are disposed of appropriately, ensuring the proper treatment of hazardous substances. The usable parts are repaired if necessary, and afterwards sold in the local secondhand market. MAGIS receives a payment for every cell phone processed.

Further, the ecological potential of the campaign goes far beyond demonstrating the economic value of recycling. The revenue itself that is devoted to environmental objectives is also ‘smart’.

Constructing solar cookers, Chad. Photo credits: MAGIS Italy

The proceeds are used to finance the construction and distribution of solar cookers in Chad. The introduction of such technologies in the arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa makes it easier for women to prepare meals, and the previous daily search for firewood becomes unnecessary. The use of solar cookers also contributes to slow down ongoing desertification processes in regions that heavily suffer soil erosion and water scarcity. By assisting the construction and distribution of solar cookers, MAGIS seeks to promote the exploitation of solar energy through simple devices that require no special maintenance.

The project also provides a space for the teaching of eco-friendly techniques to young people. Currently, the project involves a total of 300 family groups (five to 10 families per group) which collectively use the solar cookers acquired with the profit from reselling used cellphones in Italy.

In addition, 10 young apprentices were trained as technicians to continue this initiative, ensuring the maintenance of the solar cookers and learning technical skills.

Testing the solar cookers, Chad. Photo credits: MAGIS Italy

MAGIS’ engagement thereby combines very different aspects of sustainable development: attentiveness to what we throw out, the extension of the cycle of material-use, and the struggle against desertification. And at the local level in Italy, the reform of our lifestyles and consumer behaviour, together with an investment in education and lifelong learning, provide key elements of a success story from Italy that deserves imitators.

For further information, see the campaign’s website (http://www.magisitalia.org/progetti_schedaprogetto.php?riga=102) or contact the campaign officer: campagne (at) magisitalia.org.

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