Why it matters
SDG 12 focuses on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. The global material footprint is still growing, having risen to 92 billion metric tons in 2017. This is 1,250% higher in high-income countries than in low-income countries per capita. Without concerted political action, this is forecast to grow even further to reach 190 billion metric tons by 2060, according to the UN.
The industry contribution
Mobile technology and mobile operators contribute to SDG 12 through various mechanisms for e-waste management, including recycling collection points, awareness programmes and ratings, as well as through catalysing policy developments. They also apply circularity as a service, which is a mechanism to close the loop by collecting end-of-life scrap handsets from developing countries, where it is estimated that more than 1 billion such devices would reach the end of their lives with their owners having no access to any form of recycling facility or service.
‘Circularity as a service’ to reduce e-waste
Target 12.4: By 2020, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
Target 12.5: By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.
In 2019, approximately 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste (excluding PV panels) was generated, or 7.3 kg per capita, with 17% of global e-waste documented to be collected and properly recycled. If current trends continue, global e-waste production is expected to reach 120 million tonnes per year by 2050.
Globally, there are 67 e-waste management initiatives led by mobile operators in 40 countries, while 43 operators have set up e-waste or mobile waste collection points in their offices and customer contact centres. Mobile technology also addresses other waste collection and management challenges such as plastic recycling.
In the Netherlands, T-Mobile and Samsung implemented a circular service known as One for One in collaboration with a social enterprise, Closing the Loop, whereby the material footprint of a new phone (purchased in the Netherlands) is offset by recycling an old phone, which is collected in emerging markets. Thus far, Closing the Loop has collected more than 2.2 million phones while also creating additional income for over 2,000 people through partners in Asia and Africa that repair a number of these devices.
Meanwhile, an operator-led initiative provides eco-ratings on handsets and includes information such as longevity and reparability, as well as a score between one and five to indicate a device’s sustainability level. Telefónica, for instance, provides the eco-rating seal on 80% of its handsets to customers across 10 countries (in Europe and Latin America). Its portfolio in 2019 reached an average score of 3.2. Further, in 2019, Telefónica recycled 73% of electronic equipment collected, while 27% was reused. This gave new life to 4 million communication equipment units while avoiding 4,145 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Mobile technology enables plastic waste collection by formalising the process. In Côte d’Ivoire, working with mobile operator MTN and leveraging mobile technology, Coliba reduces plastic waste by formally employing waste collectors and encouraging households to recycle and turn plastic waste into pellets that can be reused while providing mobile users data credit rewards as part of the recycling process. As of July 2019, Coliba had collected plastic bottles from over 4,500 monthly active users on the mobile app, equal to nearly 100,000 kilograms of plastic waste and up to 2 tonnes of plastic recycled a day, while formally employing 45 waste collectors and 23 full-time employees.
Thailand: disposing of e-waste in an environmentally sound way
In 2019, AIS, Thailand’s largest mobile operator, declared a mission to improve the environmental quality of life for Thai citizens under the ‘Mission Green 2020’ theme. Two priorities were established: reducing GHG emissions and managing e-waste properly, with the aim to reduce and recycle waste from operations as well as encouraging customers to dispose of e-waste in an environmentally sound way. AIS aims to collect 3 million pieces of e-waste by 2022.
AIS volunteered to become a centre for the collection of e-waste from users, allowing for the convenient disposal of electronic products at all AIS shops across the nation. The AIS corporate social responsibility team lead the project and oversee all the operations to achieve the objectives and target. The campaign also raises awareness of the dangers of keeping expired e-waste at home.
Between October 2019 (the launch of the campaign) and April 2020, AIS received a total of 45,931 pieces of e-waste, equivalent to 459,310 kilograms of CO2 reduction.
Maximising impact by 2030
Enablers that could help maximise the mobile industry’s impact on SDG 12 include the following:
- Combatting the production of unsustainable e-waste, for example by setting goals to increase the number of eco-rated devices in handset portfolios to raise awareness among consumers and enable them to make sustainable decisions.
- Looking towards a more sustainable supply chain where device makers and other technology partners collaborate to create a closed loop process that will eventually eliminate unnecessary waste.
- Introducing campaigns to influence and entice customers to bring their old devices and other e-waste to collection points and raise awareness around the health and environmental dangers exposed by substances that can leak out of e-waste that is not disposed of safely.