How will the industry reduce its impact on the environmentwhile still remaining profitable?
Are consumers ready to do their part?
The corporate responsibility portions of Nokia and Vodafone’s Websites are a good indicator of the importance that companies now place on their environmental image. These pages are full-color media extravaganzas. They offer flashy video content and links to notable environmental and humanitarian organizations. Corporate responsibility covers everything from handset recycling programs to providing developing countries with access to mobile technologies. But is it all just image?
Maybe not, but it goes without saying that a green image is a good thing in the corporate world these days, whereas only a decade ago these kinds of considerations were secondary. “We’re suddenly under a magnifying glass,” said Marc Benowitz, director of Eco-Environmental Engineering in Alcatel-Lucent’s Chief Technology Officer division. “I can’t say why awareness has increased so quickly. There’s a number of factors, I’m sure. Or maybe it’s all Al Gore,” he jokes. “Either way, it’s a good thing, and the right thing.” But however altruistic the term “corporate responsibility” may sound, profitability is always the bottom line. Corporations are beginning to understand that profit and conscience are inextricably linked. So what are some of the solutions being implemented by those in the wireless industry?
Recycling has become a PR nightmare for most consumer electronics manufacturers. Recent stories by National Geographic, as well as pressure from organizations like Greenpeace and Basal Action Network (BAN), highlight unscrupulous recycling contractors that dump e-waste on third-world countries. In September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (USGAO) published a report stating that the “EPA needs to better control harmful U.S. exports through stronger enforcement and more comprehensive regulation.” BAN is a major leader in efforts to stop illegal exportation of e-waste. In fact, they’ve taken things into their own hands by joining with 32 major North American recyclers to create a certification program.
Carl Smith, CEO of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), is excited about the prospect of BAN’s new program. “As of right now,” said Smith, “we hire auditors to personally oversee the separation and recycling of the 200,000 cell phones we receive every year.” The batteries are removed from the phones and recycled for a number of different uses, including slag and the foundation for roads. Smith notes that 99% of almost any battery it receives can be recycled.
But it’s getting those batteries to the recycler that remains the key component to these efforts. “We have a continuing public education program,” Smith said, “as well as partnerships with major national retailers where people can drop off their old batteries and cell phones.”
Handset take-back programs are also being pushed by the industry. The EPA estimates that only 10% of the 1.5 million phones discarded annually are recycled. Most carriers offer a postage-paid mail-in program, with more and more retail drop points being added around the country. Even eBay has gotten in on the act, with its informative hub, Rethink. The site has teamed up with numerous manufacturers, as well as government agencies, and offers a portal to all kinds of resources related to recycling e-waste.
The low percentage of handsets being recycled could be because consumers have a hard time connecting their dead phone with abstract and overwhelming ideas like “protecting the environment.” Perhaps that’s why unique initiatives like Verizon Wireless’ HopeLine are succeeding. HopeLine has drop boxes in all of its Verizon retail locations. A portion of the phones are then refurbished and given to victims of domestic abuse, along with 250 minutes of airtime. “It brings the whole idea of recycling closer to home,” says Terri Stanton, spokeswoman for HopeLine.
The Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) industry accounts for only 2% of energy use across the spectrum of industries. Understandably, this limits the direct impact that network providers can have on global reduction of energy consumption and CO2 emissions. However, given that reductions in the two go hand in hand, it’s profitable to develop networks that use less energy and subsequently emit less pollution.
Base station cooling has long been the main power vacuum in the industry. Keeping these units cool accounts for about 40% of a network’s total energy consumption. Frederic Wuaquiez, marketing manager of Eco-sustainable Wireless Solutions for Alcatel-Lucent, said that cooling base stations is one of the biggest challenges to providing an efficient network. “There are three ways of approaching the problem,” Wuaquiez said. “We can make the internal components more resistant to heat. We can reduce the energy the cooling systems use, or we can figure out a way to use the heat generated by these components for cooling.” He admits that recycling the base station’s heat could be a few years off, but stresses that reducing a company’s footprint means constant innovation.
But if ICT is limited as to the direct impact it can have on reducing energy use, the technologies they develop leave them uniquely poised to help other industries become more efficient. “This is where we can make a big difference,” Benowitz said. A report by The Climate Group on behalf of the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI) focuses on how ICT technologies can drastically reduce carbon emissions and energy use around the world. The report concludes that “ICT’s largest influence will be by enabling energy efficiencies in other sectors, an opportunity that could deliver carbon savings five times larger than the total emissions from the entire ICT sector in 2020.”
On the consumer end, the products themselves are an exciting way in which the industry will make the world cleaner and more efficient. Vodafone notes that its video-conferencing facilities are reducing business travel. “We estimate that we have avoided approximately 3,000 business trips by using our existing 412 videoconferencing facilities.” It also is working on the use of mobile phones to remotely manage the use of household appliances.
Startup Carbon Diem is developing a mobile-based software that it hopes will run on virtually any handset. Using GPS technologies, the software can track a person’s carbon use. Given rates of travel, the software will be able to track whether a person is on a plane, walking, or in a car, and thus calculate that user’s carbon use throughout the day. The company’s Website says that this will enable the user to set personal targets and compare against others, and companies would be able to collect the data and work out their usage across all their employees.
A survey on Vodafone’s Website shows how difficult it may be to educate consumers globally. The survey found that “corporate responsibility” has different meanings for different markets. Forty percent of Indians surveyed said that a responsible company is one that delivers a “quality product.” Zero percent said that a responsible company was one that “protects the environment.” But in Australia, 31% of respondents thought that a responsible company was one that makes a good product, and 6% of respondents said “protects the environment.”
In the end, however, corporate responsibility and consumer responsibility are two sides of the same coin. If consumers aren’t willing or educated enough to do their part, it won’t matter how many recycling initiatives a corporation has in place. Somewhere along the line, consumers will need to feel obligated or compelled to dispose of their dead products in a responsible manner. As The Climate Change report concedes: “There are policy, market and behavioral hurdles that need to be overcome to deliver the savings possible.”