Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for digital communication has been stronger than ever. Telecommunications companies (“telcos”) have been keeping pace by providing added products and services, but this in turn results in greater energy use. While the sector produces less greenhouse gas emissions than others, it falls behind other industries in terms of sustainability efforts. Here’s a look at how a circular economy could address these gaps to promote greener operations for telcos.
What Is a Circular Economy & Why Do Telcos Need It?
A circular economy prioritizes the reuse of devices and aims to maximize their lifespan. In turn, this reduces the amount of resources used to generate new devices and cuts back on emissions to lower their overall carbon footprint.
The telecommunications industry is a good candidate for establishing a circular economy because it’s resource-intensive. Phones and other devices use metals such as copper and gold, while minerals such as lithium are used in batteries. The use of non-renewable resources and the mining activities used to extract them can be reduced drastically by promoting circularity. Currently, however, there are significant waste streams from office equipment, data centers, and personal devices.
Telcos must also find ways to control emissions as the demand for their products and services grows. While these companies are responsible for only 1.6% of total GHG emissions globally, the sector could be responsible for up to 14% by 2040, due to the increasing demand for digital communications.
What Challenges Do Telcos Face?
While many industries have already adopted or are moving towards a circular economy, telcos face some unique challenges in this pursuit. For one, their supply chain is complex, and would require coordination from many parties to drive reuse and recycling. Moreover, getting used devices back from consumers and into the hands of manufacturers will call for reverse logistics, which can be complex to manage.
Additionally, while many consumers are making more sustainable choices, some still aren’t fully aware of the importance of repairing or recycling devices to maximize their lifespan and reduce their carbon footprint. And, supporting the circular economy still remains a personal choice for consumers.
Finally, there’s also a knowledge gap across the industry when it comes to product design that supports a circular economy. Products must be designed in a way that enables repairs and simplifies recycling efforts, but most devices are optimized for single use.
Fortunately, there are solutions telcos can use to address these challenges.
How Telcos Can Create & Maintain a Circular Economy
While there may be some initial hurdles, pursuing a circular economy can have benefits for telcos. For one, they can play a role in working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 12, which refers to sustainable consumption and production. A circular economy could also cast telcos in a favorable light among consumers and investors seeking sustainable and environmentally responsible brands.
There are several steps telcos must take to achieve a circular economy. First, they’ll need to refine their existing practices to switch to a circular business model, which could include product development initiatives that extend the product lifecycle, as well as recovering materials and finding ways to reuse them. Next, they must focus on raising consumer awareness and positioning circularity as an attractive selling point through targeted yet factual communications. Finally, telcos must build partnerships to enable circularity. For example, they should seek out suppliers and investors who prioritize sustainability, and work with ITAD and recycling companies who specialize in solutions that promote circularity.