Liberty High School students save gorillas — one cellphone at a time

January 8, 2013

By Lillian O'Rorke

Liberty High School freshman biology students James Workman, Kenna Hanses and Isabel Rivas are collecting used cell phones to help save gorilla habitat. Workman holds a painting by Ivan the gorilla, which the class received for its altruistic efforts. By Lillian O’Rorke

Above the whiteboard in Diane Allen’s biology classroom at Liberty High School hangs an abstract painting.

The red swirls where created not by human hands but those of Ivan, the gorilla. Though Ivan spent the first three decades of his life caged in Tacoma, his painting was given to the class in recognition of its efforts to save gorillas in the wild.

Since 2005, Liberty students have collected used cellphones and shipped them to ECO-CELL, an organization that recycles and reuses electronics to help reduce e-waste and, in turn, save gorilla habitat.

“I didn’t get it — like there are cellphones in the wild? It didn’t work: cellphones, gorillas?” 14-year old Kenna Hanses, a freshmen in Allen’s biology course, said. “I thought it was stupid. I was like, ‘Oh, they’re gorillas, they can live.’ And then, apparently it was, like, affecting their habitat and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s sad.”

What Hanses and the rest of her class learned is that coltan, a mineral essential to the production of cellphones, is primarily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also referred to as “black gold” and “the new blood mineral,” coltan has been linked by the United Nations and other groups to helping fuel conflict in the West African country. War aside, extracting the metallic ore from the earth means destroying gorilla habitat.

Liberty High School

On the Web

Learn more about ECO-CELL at

Hanses is now on board with the rest of her class, which hopes to collect more than 250 cellphones by the end of the year. She’s already donated two. James Workman, 14, donated his dad’s old phone.

“Once you realize that the coltan from the phones being used — instead of having to dig it up, some of the gorillas could stay alive, stay in their habitat,” Workman said. “Gorillas are interesting … I thought it was really interesting that they can do stuff that humans can do, not the level that humans can do, but they have a lot of brain power.”

Animals, Allen explained, are often a good way to get students to connect to the issues they learn about in class.

“They’ve heard the message ‘reuse, reduce and recycle.’ It’s almost boring to them,” she said. “For them to really get personally involved, or take personal responsibility, it almost has to be an emotional attachment somehow.”

That’s why Allen said she and other teachers look for lessons or activities that get students to interact and connect. That’s what she was looking for in 2005 when she stumbled upon the ECO-CELL project.

“We do a big unit in ecology, and I was looking for something where the kids could actually feel like they could do something to help solve some of the problems that we identified,” Allen said.

“We looked at e-waste and we looked at reduce, reuse and recycle. But we added on that kind of rethink and react, so their personal responsibility came in. So, it’s kind of an extension of basic environmental concepts we are studying.”

How it works

The biology class collects used cellphones and sends them at the end of the year to ECO-CELL. There they are refurbished and reused by battered women’s programs, senior citizen groups, emergency 911 users and in underdeveloped countries, or recycled so that the materials — like coltan — can be used in other devices.

“It’s really awesome,” Isabel Rivas, 14, said. “It’s like recycling bottles — you’re taking something from things you don’t need anymore and making it into something else.”

When Allen started the program in the 2005-06 school year, she collected 65 phones. Now, all four Liberty biology teachers have collection boxes in their rooms, and in the past seven years the school has saved 619 used cellphones from the trash.

Because Liberty students are also considered “silverback members” — an honor they earned for collecting so many phones — ECO-CELL gives them money for every phone. The biology students got to pick who they wanted to help with the money they raised and have so far sent $630 to Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

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