Telcos can do more to drive mobile e-waste solutions
The generation of e-waste is a growing problem that the telecoms ecosystem must do more to tackle. If telcos are to effectively meet their scope 3 emissions reduction targets, they will need to find ways to collaborate with the wider ecosystem and minimise e-waste.
Telcos looking beyond their own operations
Sustainability has become a central issue for telcos in recent years. They have set ambitious net-zero targets across their scope 1,2 and 3 emissions. In many cases, they are making considerable progress towards meeting these targets. However, to maximise their sustainable impact telcos must look beyond their own operations and consider the wider environmental impact of their partners and ecosystems. This is a topic that STL Partners has looked into extensively in our work on enablement. This article will focus specifically on the issue of E-waste and will explore the potential of telco-driven E-waste solutions.
What is e-waste?
The term e-waste is used to describe electronics that have come to the end of their useful life and are ready to for replacement. Common sources of E-waste include televisions, computers, and mobile phones. But the vast array of electrical equipment that telcos use in their day-to-day operations can also become e-waste, and the amount produced continues to rise. In 2021, 54.7 million Metric Tonnes of e-waste was generated globally, and this number is forecasted to reach 75 million Metric Tonnes by 2030.
There are various problems associated with e-waste:
- It contains harmful chemicals such as mercury, lead, beryllium, brominated flame retardants, and cadmium. These chemicals can end up in our soil, water, and air if electronics are mishandled.
- A significant proportion of e-waste is handled in informal recycling markets in developing countries. Without the proper equipment, those who are working within these informal markets can be exposed to the harmful chemicals. In many instances, these workers are children who are even more vulnerable to harm from dangerous chemicals.
- If devices are discarded, the precious metals contained within them cannot be reused. This means more mining is required to extract the metals needed for new devices. There are several problems associated with mining of precious metals, including emissions generated by equipment, land erosion, mine waste spills, child labour and corruption.
E waste generated globally continues to rise each year
Telcos and mobile devices
Mobile handset business model
Outside of their own operations, one of telcos’ primary connection to e-waste is their relationship with mobile handset vendors and the selling of devices. Many telcos are attempting to align themselves with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the mobile handset industry is struggling to meet goal 12, ‘responsible production and consumption’. The current business model for the sale of mobile handsets is inherently unsustainable.
- New devices are constantly released, and customers are encouraged to ‘upgrade’ regularly by their provider. This is a vicious cycle; vendors feel pressured to release new devices on a regular basis and customers feel pressured to keep up with the latest tech by upgrading.
- Old devices are often left sitting in draws or are thrown away. Discarding devices brings about the e-waste problems discussed above.
- Those who wish to keep a device for a substantial period are inhibited by the fact that batteries and other parts often can’t easily be removed or replaced, meaning it can be easier to buy a new device rather than repair a damaged one.
- The constant production and consumption new devices puts pressure on the environment through mining, as well as throughout the rest of the production process and during distribution.
What can telcos do to provide e-waste solutions?
There are a range of measures that telcos are adopting to curb the growth of e-waste
- Promoting sustainable products: Working with sustainable mobile phone companies to create, promote and sell their products. Deutsche Telekom (DT) is currently working with Samsung in order to develop a green smartphone, expected to be available at the end of 2022. They are also working with Fairphone to market their sustainable mobile phones.
- Eco labelling: Helping consumers to factor sustainability into their mobile phones purchases by labelling mobile phones according to their environmental impact. Five of Europe’s leading operators, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, Telia Company and Vodafone have collaborated with EcoAct, an Atos company, to initiate Eco Rating, a new labelling system. After a detailed assessment, each mobile handset is given a score out of 100 based on life cycle and circular economy indicators.
- Device recycling/refurbishment: Encouraging customers to hand in their old devices, which can either be refurbished and resold, or recycled, so that the raw materials can be reused. Proximus has established refurbishment distribution centre and between 2014 and 2021, it refurbished around 2.85 million devices. Customers are incentivised to hand in old devices with €10 vouchers on top of their trade-in value. Find out more about this in STL Partners’ Telco net zero enablement use case directory.
But telcos can and should do more…
- Funding research into more efficient batteries. Researchers, such as those at Monash University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, are working hard to develop more efficient batteries that use less energy and can last longer. These batteries are likely to be a key factor in creating more sustainable smartphones. To demonstrate their commitment to a more sustainable ecosystem, telcos should provide funding for those engaged in this type of research.
- Building brand around sustainability: Rather than viewing the promotion of sustainable mobile phones as something that is going to cost money, telcos should see this an opportunity to differentiate their brands. A 2021 study from O2 found that 56% of people consider it important that their next phone is eco-friendly, and this figure jumps to 75% among 16–24-year-olds . If telcos are seen to be the go-to sustainable option for consumers, this may draw new business and increase revenues.
- Closely monitor the practices of vendor partners: Whilst the manufacturing of mobile phones is always likely to be a resource intensive process, operators could do more to ensure that vendors are doing their upmost to integrate circular economy principles into their processes. Perhaps one way they could do this is by refusing to partner with companies that are not doing enough in this area. They could use a criteria similar to figure 2 below to evaluate vendors’ performance.
Figure 2: Guidelines for how to implement circular economy strategy
The industry is becoming more focused on e-waste
Along with sustainability more generally, focus on the massive and growing amounts of e-waste generated each year is also increasing. Telcos have been focusing on minimising e-waste in their own operations but have also been implementing strategies to minimise e-waste in the wider ecosystem. Mobile phones are a major contributor to e-waste, and mobile vendors are often not as advanced as telcos when it comes to sustainability. Therefore, telcos must continue to put pressure on vendors and collaborate across the ecosystem to find innovative e-waste solutions.
Author: Olly Murphy is an Analyst at STL Partners, specialising in sustainability.
Read more about sustainability
Sustainability: Why it’s good for business
Telcos should embrace sustainability not just as a PR goal, but as a new heart to their purpose and strategy in the Coordination Age. By doing so they can unite and motivate employees, customers, investors and partners, and reignite growth and innovation.