Earth Day 2023: Reflecting on Telecoms and E Waste

This article was published in Telecom Ramblings on April 20, 2023. You can read the original article here.  

This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Hannes Gredler, Founder and CTO at RtBrick

Earth Day 2023 is right around the corner on April 22, and it’s a great opportunity to reflect on the telecoms industry’s environmental footprint. E-waste not only affects the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) being put into the atmosphere, but studies have shown that there are even negative health effects for adults and children. The telecoms sector itself is a large contributor to the e-waste crisis, which is expected to reach 74.7 million metric tons by 2030.

The good news is that new technologies exist to help the industry reduce its footprint. Telecoms operators can employ disaggregated network systems, for example, to help alleviate the negative e-waste effects.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle – the right way

In America, the amount of e-waste per capita we produce would equate to every American wearing a 29-pound backpack. That’s a lot of extra weight to be carrying around – especially when toxic chemicals like lead and lithium are riddled throughout. Even in countries where e-waste programs are in place, there are plenty of people who don’t use the created and legal channels to dispose of the electronic waste, leading to unregulated disposal.

Traditionally, network software and hardware have come from a single vendor as a monolithic system. Conventional telco routers are large, costly, and can only use components provided by their original vendor – which makes being green difficult when it’s time to upgrade or switch vendors. When carriers do inevitably move forward with upgrading either their software or hardware, their old equipment often ends up in landfills.

E-waste harvesters source materials from the waste, in turn, exposing people to dangerous substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. When dealing with heavy chemicals used to break down technology, there can be irreversible health effects, not to mention the potential runoff of toxic chemicals into the environment.

In the US, a mere 17.4% of e-waste is documented as formally collected and recycled. That’s not surprising when there’s only 25 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have electronic recycling laws. In some states, there are no laws surrounding e-waste recycling or protecting the disposal of such materials.

Build green(er) options

Operators are starting to adopt open bare-metal switches instead of traditional monolithic routers, as they’re more practical, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly. With the use of open bare-metal switches, legacy tech doesn’t need to be recycled; it can be repurposed

Historically, telecoms systems were built with many interdependent parts within a closed system. When parts become outdated and need upgrading, the entire system and its hardware must be disposed of.  With open bare-metal switches, however, a whole new world of options becomes available. Now, equipment from various vendors can be swapped in and out. Unlike conventional systems, bare-metal, sustainable hardware is reusable and has a longer shelf life. It can be reprogrammed and given a new function with different software, rather than having to be fully discarded and replaced.

Open, bare-metal switches help significantly reduce e-waste by making equipment more evergreen for use. They also significantly improve power efficiency thanks to the silicon they use. This can help carriers save on increasing power costs, in addition to enhancing their sustainability efforts.

It’s time for telco providers to future-proof their systems and make it easier on themselves in the long run to implement technology that will make their investments last longer and be more sustainable. The broadband buildout techniques have been the same for two decades and the world is a very different place with technology than it was in 2003. To put it in perspective, most of our technology updates monthly, but our tactics for network buildouts and support haven’t changed in 20 + years.

A cleaner & greener future

The implementation of disaggregated networks and the use of open, bare-metal switches will aid in the goal of eliminating improper disposal of e-waste. With bare-metal switches and disaggregated networks, the telecoms industry has options to make the world greener and to help alleviate their piece of the problematic e-waste pie.