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With greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions currently the primary concern for limiting global warming, it makes sense that publicly touted sustainability metrics are focussed on carbon. But for technology industries, e-waste is also a critical issue that should be deeply embedded within every enterprise sustainability program.

According to UNITAR’s Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, e-waste is “the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fuelled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few options for repair.” E-waste is a leading contributor to toxic chemicals in our landfill, including harmful materials like lead, cadmium, and mercury. For a cleaner future it is important to provide pathways for the re-use and recycling of phones, routers, and other digital communications hardware.

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) funds and operates MobileMuster, which delivers an easy access to recycling of consumer e-waste – expanding over the past year beyond phones and into wider consumer digital devices. But this program alone is not enough. The MobileMuster annual report 2023 suggests that while 96 tonnes of handsets were collected over the past year, this represented only 12% of the phones that could have been recycled through the program.

What can major telcos do to more directly encourage greater awareness and use of device recycling programs? How can they align success and failure in this area with their internal ambitions for environmental targets?

Consumer focus

Consumers are increasingly conscious of corporate environmental efforts, with higher affinity and engagement with businesses that reflect their desire for real green action. Through transparency around environmental initiatives with better e-waste management integration, telcos could deliver even more meaningful engagement with such customers.

E-waste engagement through loyalty scheme

Proactive engagement with customers to encourage recycling of old handsets can drive participation in environmental programs and deepen your connection with customers. This can include not only handsets but cables, chargers, portable power devices, and more.

Consumers may feel uncertain around ‘letting go’ of older hardware. Exploring ways to help them assess the usefulness or viability of ‘spare’ hardware could help them make decisions about what to keep and what to bring into store for recycling. For telcos with existing loyalty points programs, offering bonus points during limited time recycling events could encourage participation and deliver positive media engagement. 

Right to repair advocacy

The Global E-Waste Monitor report identified repairability as a significant factor in the e-waste problem. Improving repairability of consumer smartphones has been gaining great traction around the world and regulators have been taking notice.

Telcos could take a pro-consumer stance that promotes extending the life of handsets. As repairability has been growing, there could be ways to partner with OEM and third-party repair services to support consumers in keeping devices alive. Through such partnerships more weight could be given to encouraging OEMs to supply accredited third-party repairers with original spare parts. This could help to extend device lifespans and avoid negative impacts of dodgy repair work.

Align sustainability with consumer device marketing

Telco marketing to consumers places significant emphasis on selling the latest flagship handsets. Reducing this focus can help bring added substance to wider environmental impact claims. This can feel counter to the entire philosophy of marketing and selling new devices. But in the midst of the current environmental crisis how can we soften or adapt these messages to a more sustainable future? Are there incentives for buyers who ‘hand me down’ or ‘hand me up’ phones to family or friends who are also customers on our networks?

sustainability in telecommunications

Sustainable accessory promotions

Beyond core device hardware, there is a vast ecosystem of accessories from third party manufacturers. Some of these have also begun to emphasise their efforts to make more sustainable products for their consumers. With the world in the thick of the USB-C transition, finding accessory makers with stronger ESG credentials to partner with could offer mutual benefit and help customers find products that align with their sustainability goals.

Provide more sustainable choices

While Australian and New Zealand telcos may struggle to influence the sustainability agendas of major device manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung, they can help consumers and businesses make more sustainable choices. Fairphone is an Amsterdam electronics company that is leading the way in sustainability for consumer devices, with a commitment to helping customers hold onto phones for longer. Its flagship product is a modular Android smartphone which, unlike mainstream devices, consumers can repair themselves. Such products could be marketed and supported by Australian telcos to help move the dial on sustainability metrics, and influence lower volumes of e-waste.

Enterprise evolution

The industry itself is in a constant, steady rhythm of upgrades to keep pace with customer performance expectations from cutting edge communications infrastructure. With ongoing increases in demand on network performance, maintaining high quality performance for every customer segment requires regular hardware replacement. Finding ways to ensure this aspect of telco operations is managed with transparent e-waste management processes holds great benefits for meeting sustainability goals.

For infrastructure e-waste, beyond direct recycling – an essential backstop option – there could be opportunities to explore extending the life of hardware that is no longer needed for telco-grade use. Whether with charity partners or other avenues for redistribution, equipment that is moved into use elsewhere offers tremendous environmental benefits over sending them to the scrap heap.

Recycling is also a business opportunity as part of a truly circular global telecommunications industry. The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 flagged that in 2019 alone, US$57 billion in precious materials including gold, silver, copper, and platinum, were dumped or burned that could have

been recycled. Being prepared to participate in industry partnerships to take greater ownership of the problem holds potential for both the essential environmental needs as well as future economic advantage.

Rakesh Garala

ANZ Head of Technology Consulting, Cognizant

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Tom McQueen

Head of Sustainability Practice ANZ, Cognizant

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