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Addressing e-waste in telecommunications

Author : Marcin Bala, Salumanus

21 May 2024

According to the UN’s Global e-waste monitor 2024, a record 62 million tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was produced in 2022, up 82 percent from 2010. Meanwhile, less than one quarter (22.3 percent) of the year’s e-waste mass was documented as having been properly collected and recycled.

Unless urgent action is taken, e-waste generation is projected to reach 82 million tonnes by 2030. Here, Marcin Bala, CEO of telecommunication networks specialist Salumanus, explores the challenges posed by e-waste in telecommunications. 

Telecommunications equipment, including networking gear, antennae and cables, contributes significantly to this e-waste stream. As older technologies become obsolete, and newer, more efficient systems are deployed, outdated equipment is often discarded, adding to the growing e-waste burden. 

Challenges and consequences

Incorrect equipment recycling poses not only financial risks, but it can also directly affect the environment and human health. For example, incineration or landfilling release harmful toxins and pollutants into the environment, contaminating soil, water and air. Substances like lead, mercury and cadmium found in electronic devices can leach into the ecosystem, damaging human health and wildlife. One of the most dangerous substances, mercury, is known to cause brain damage and result in issues with the human coordination system. 

Furthermore, the inefficient recycling of e-waste results in the loss of valuable resources. Many electronic components contain precious metals like gold, silver and copper, which can be recovered and reused. However, without proper recycling infrastructure and processes in place, these resources are often lost or underutilised. According to the Global E-waste Monitor research, the estimated value of metals embedded in e-waste rises to 91 billion US dollars, of which 19 billion US dollars is copper alone. 

At the heart of the e-waste issue lies a deeply ingrained culture of landfill disposal driven by convenience and lack of awareness about proper disposal methods. What can governments and telecom companies do to tackle this problem?

Product design for sustainability

Governments play a critical role in addressing e-waste in the telecommunications industry through various actions. Firstly, implementing stringent regulations and policies can compel telecom companies to adopt sustainable practices in product design, manufacturing, and disposal. 

This could include mandatory recycling programs, extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, and restrictions on hazardous materials in electronic devices. Additionally, governments can incentivise the development and adoption of eco-friendly technologies and processes, through tax breaks, grants, or subsidies.

Positive change towards a more sustainable industry starts at the product design stage. Adopting design principles such as modularisation, and using recyclable or biodegradable materials, can significantly reduce the environmental impact of electronic devices. Modular design allows for easier disassembly and component replacement, extending the lifespan of products, and facilitating repair and recycling efforts.

Similarly, choosing recyclable or biodegradable materials for products facilitates eco-friendly disposal, reducing e-waste in landfills. Integrating sustainability into design helps telecom companies to support a circular economy and shrink their ecological impact.

Marcin Bala, Salumanus
Marcin Bala, Salumanus

Recycling programs

Another crucial step towards tackling e-waste is implementing robust recycling programs. Telecom companies can establish comprehensive initiatives for consumers to dispose of old devices responsibly, diverting them from landfills. Incentives like discounts or free recycling services encourage participation and promote responsible e-waste management. 

Partnering with certified recycling facilities ensures proper processing, maximising resource recovery and minimising environmental harm. Effective recycling programs contribute to a more sustainable, circular economy by closing the loop on product lifecycles.

Universal transceivers

While these changes will require longer-term regulatory and perhaps cultural changes in the approach to e-waste, there are some short-term actions that the telecom industry can take now. For example, universal transceivers present a promising solution to mitigating e-waste in the industry. These versatile devices are designed to support multiple wireless communication standards, consolidating the functionalities of several separate components into a single unit. 

By adopting universal transceivers, telecom companies can streamline their infrastructure, reducing the number of devices deployed and minimising the need for frequent upgrades or replacements. The flexibility and scalability of universal transceivers enable telecom networks to adapt to evolving technologies without significant hardware changes, extending the lifespan of equipment and reducing e-waste generation.

Salumanus has recently released a new version of its innovative Smart Recode Device (SRD), in its fifth version. The SRD 5 introduces the ability to program advanced interfaces such as OSFP (400G/800G/1.6T), QSFP-DD (400G/800G) and SFP-DD (100G) to create universal optical transceivers. The device is supported by a private cloud with a continuously updated compatibility database. 

With a variety of engineering environments in mind, the SRD 5 offers a wide range of power options, from traditional power supplies to power banks to USB-C power. This approach ensures uninterrupted operation, even in locations with limited access to power sources. By dispensing with sockets for legacy interfaces, it has also been possible to significantly reduce the size of the device. 

Conclusion

Addressing the issue of e-waste in the telecommunications industry requires a multifaceted approach involving product design, recycling programs, and the adoption of innovative technologies such as universal transceivers. Embracing these strategies represents a collective effort to minimise the environmental impact of the telecom sector, while fostering innovation and sustainability.

To find out more about the SRD 5 from Salumanus or to learn about the company’s approach to sustainability, visit here


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