Our Connected, Mobile, Recycled and Green Future

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By Jonas Allen

For several months the Green Electronics Council (GEC) has explored with TriplePundit more than a dozen issues at the intersection of sustainability and electronics. From e-waste and 3-D printing to water use and closed-loop design, some of the sector’s brightest minds and most respected companies are making great strides to advance the greening of electronics.

GEC, operator of the EPEAT green rating system for electronics, convened many of those stakeholders in September to discuss the next meaningful steps on this shared sustainability journey. Their conversations shed light on three areas for continued focus, both because the areas hold great promise for the sector’s ever-evolving sustainability, and because they have implications for each of us. They also happen to represent the important convergence of people, planet and profit.

The cloud

For more than a decade, the term “Green ICT” has been the de-facto phrase used to describe environmentally preferable electronics. Technologies and form factors have changed dramatically during that time, ushering in the question of whether “Green IoT” is now a more appropriate term. The Internet of Things is practically synonymous with electronics, and that won’t change anytime soon. It’s estimated there will be between 26 billion and 41 billion connected devices by 2020.

Enabling those always-on devices is the cloud, an amorphous network of servers, storage and other equipment that processes, crunches and returns data at a moment’s notice. High-performance server farms like Amazon’s and Facebook’s are incredibly energy efficient, yet they account for just 1 percent of all global data centers. Small- and medium-sized data centers, the type owned and managed by millions of small businesses and individuals, account for 49 percent. Combine all data centers’ energy use, and the energy footprint would rank as the 13th largest country in the world.

And energy is just one aspect of data-center environmental performance. Clearly the sector has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to improve the cloud’s global sustainability and reinforce everyone’s role in contributing to that outcome.

Mobile devices

Though powerful, the millions of individual servers that comprise the cloud are useless without a device to connect to them. Fortunately for enterprises betting on the cloud, those 26 billion to 41 billion connected devices predicted by 2020 will keep the cloud relevant for years to come.

According to Ericsson’s latest Mobility Report, mobile devices will continue to account for most of those connections, with 80 percent of all mobile data traffic expected to from smartphones five years from now. This represents both a powerful opportunity and a significant challenge.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans disposed of more than 152 million mobile phones in 2010. That translates to approximately 350,000 phones per day. Those of you reading this article likely have a smartphone; maybe you’re even reading this on one. Before you purchased that phone, did you consider its use of recycled material or whether it had a reduced amount of harmful materials?

Several leading manufacturers have made environmental progress on these fronts, and select wireless carriers have recognized their efforts. With their continued support, the mobile space represents a significant opportunity for future environmental innovation. And that’s critical: If the mobile devices that connect to it aren’t making their own sustainability gains, the cloud will forever fall short of being “green.”

Ironically, one of the most significant sustainability challenges for mobile devices isn’t the finished product, but the voracious rate of device consumption. Already there are more mobile phones on Earth than people, and while the worldwide population grows 1.2 percent annually, the number of mobile devices multiplies five times faster. This unprecedented consumption comes with undeniable environmental costs, from an escalation in e-waste to the rapid depletion of resources.

Fortunately, as computational power moves to the cloud, innovations like Circular Devices’ PuzzlePhone are showing device hardware can far exceed the 18-month lifespans we’ve been conditioned to expect. This holds promise for reducing the use of energy and materials in production, slowing the e-waste epidemic, and contributing in a meaningful way to the sector’s overall sustainability.

Reduce, reuse, recover and recycle

Well before “Green ICT” was even coined, the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” had gained widespread adoption. As electronics have proliferated, a fourth step – recover – has been added to the mix, and more attention has been paid to reuse by extending a product’s life well beyond the original user. If “Green IoT” asks us to change how we think about greening electronics, then having four Rs presents us with a complete re-imagining. Fortunately there’s a strong business case to support the change.

Recovery and recycling rates for electronics remain surprisingly low worldwide, and low commodity prices have pushed the electronics-recycling industry into near crisis. However, by increasing the focus on recovering precious and finite materials, the entire electronics sector could generate substantial environmental benefits while reaping financial reward.

For instance, data from Umicore shows that recycling 1 ton of used cell phones – a mere 6,000 handsets – can recover up to 340 grams of gold. By comparison, 1 ton of mined gold ore contains just 6 grams of gold. Research from Trucost looks at this through a financial lens and presents an even more dramatic picture. Trucost found that if the recycling rates for gold (15 percent), silver (15 percent) and platinum (5 percent) were all increased to 100 percent, the electronics sector could realize $12 billion in financial and natural capital benefits. The closed-loop recycling of plastics, metals and other materials further increases that figure.

The topic of green electronics is no longer a purely environmental discussion. As these products continue to touch every corner of the globe, an increased focus on their sustainability presents new opportunities for technological, environmental and financial progress.

Likewise, as the number of connected devices we use continues to increase, it becomes increasingly critical to understand that we all have a role – consumer, corporation, manufacturer or recycler – in the environmental progress of electronics. It’s wholly appropriate that this is the case. After all, each of us has a vested interest in a successful and sustainable outcome for our planet.

Image credit: Pixabay

Jonas Allen is Director of Marketing for the Green Electronics Council.

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