Take a moment to think about your appliance drawer at home; everyone has one, and more often than not, it’s filled with pallets of once beloved but now outdated devices – from smartphones, tablets, cameras, and the like.
While these devices might not look dangerous, they find themselves at the heart of a major environmental and economic debate, as the world edges closer to the global rollout of 5G: the e-waste problem.
Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to all electronic products that have been discarded without the intent to refurbish or reuse.
It’s hard for many to conceive the fate of these devices; in plains, fields, and factories where workers hammer away at them to remove hazardous components such as lithium-ion batteries, copper and platinum.
The scene is like a twisted Pixar movie, with doomed gadgets riding an unrelenting conveyor belt into a machine that shreds them to pieces.
While 5G markets itself to be the tidal wave of worldwide technological change, a revolution of this kind comes at a price and could usher in an unprecedented wave of electronic waste we’re simply not prepared for.
“The exponential growth we’re going to see in electronic waste, especially around obsolescence … [given] the technology curve for these 5G connected devices is so steep at the moment, is a concern,” says Dr. Miles Park, a senior lecturer in industrial design at the University of New South Wales.
According to studies done by the United Nations Environment Program, with the annual cycle of modern-day consumer electronic, the rate of e-waste currently produced is up to 50 million tons yearly. Cell phones, tablets, computers, and televisions –lots of old technology already makes its way into landfills.
“It is already difficult enough when a new product is launched on the market every 12 months, and it’s just driving obsolescence of the previous generation of product because there is so much innovation and redundancy happening in this field,” Dr. Park added.
Some environmental organizations are already calling on tech companies to foot the bill of recycling the electronics they manufacture and sell. This has picked up traction in some parts of Europe, Canada, and in some US states who have passed the so-called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws, which require manufacturers to set-up and fund systems to recycle or collect obsolete products.
An example of this can be seen at Apple, where a smartphone-recycling robot called Daisy was developed in 2018 that has the ability to take apart 200 iPhones per hour, and says it diverted 48,000 metric tons of electronic waste away from landfills.
But that’s a drop in a bucket compared with the 50 million tons of e-waste generated globally last year. With 5G being a stone’s throw away, a flood of worldwide e-waste is on the horizon, and recycling alone won’t be enough.
Yet there are a number of ideas and solutions being developed, researched, and implemented across the globe that may be enough to inspire the adoption of better practices in the fight against climate change.
Better designed products
The world is in need of safer, and more durable electronics that are repairable, and recyclable; in essence, using less hazardous materials.
Currently, chemical engineers at Stanford University are working on the world’s first fully biodegradable electronic circuit, which uses dyes that dissolve in acid with a pH 100 times weaker than vinegar.
While a group of researchers from both the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India, in collaboration with the Texas Rice University in the US have aimed toward pulverizing electronic printed circuit boards, in specialized mills at ultra-sub-zero temperatures, into reusable nano-dust.
In parallel, Ronin8, a Vancouver-based e-waste management company, developed a technology that uses minimal water and energy to separate metals from non-metals via sonic vibrations in recycled water.
Widespread EPR laws
Widening the scope of EPR will hold tech companies and electronics manufacturers responsible for managing and disposing of their devices at the end of their working lives; this lays the ground for recycling materials such as copper, platinum, gold, and many others, to be reused in the development of newer products.
This can be seen through the New York State Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act which requires manufacturers to provide consumers with free and convenient e-waste recycling.
Commercial recycling methods
This effort needs all the help it can get, thus commercializing the recycling process to the masses will allow tech companies, as well as waste management companies, to collect older devices for them to be treated. An example of this can be seen with EcoATM, a US-based e-waste management company, which incentivizes people to turn in their older products to one of their 2,700 kiosks across the U.S. The EcoATM evaluates devices based on model and condition, and directly hands you a sum of money based on that evaluation.
Across the Pacific Ocean, China’s biggest Internet Company, Baidu, has developed a smartphone app in collaboration with the UN Development Program called Baidu Recycle. Users specify the device in question, enter its measurements along with a convenient pickup date accompanied with their name and address; an accredited recycler will pick it up from you within 24 hours.
11,000 devices have been recycled in the span of two months after its release.
The dream of a circular economy
A circular economy is one that aims to keep products and all their materials in circulation at their highest value at all times or for as long as possible.
According to Stephanie Kersten-Johnston, an adjunct professor in the Sustainability Management program at Columbia University and Director of Circular Ventures at The Recycling Partnership, the “highest value” means what’s closest to the original product, to get the most out of the value of the material and the labor that went into creating the product.
Europe has made the circular economy a goal for the whole continent.
“Right now, over the length of the contract, you gradually buy outright the phone so the provider can recoup the cost of manufacturing that phone in the first place,” Kersten-Johnston, using the example of smartphones, was quoted as saying.
“But at the end of the contract, you’re left with a phone that’s worth basically nothing, that you’ve had to pay for all that time and you can’t do anything with it. That’s a flawed model. But imagine a system where the provider or manufacturer retained ownership of the device through the contract so customers would pay a lower monthly fee and be expected to return the device for an upgrade. The value could be recaptured in the form of parts for remanufacture or materials for recycling, and customers would still get their upgrades,” she added.
Kersten-Johnston considers that this business model will happen sooner, rather than later, stating that millennials and the younger generation do not value ownership in the same way older generations do, while being more vocal toward more responsible business practices.
On another note, reusing and recycling the materials from these old gadgets brings a myriad of economic benefits across the board. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the circular economy could generate opportunities worth over $62.5 billion annually and create millions of new jobs worldwide.
With this in mind, the UN has set a target to increase global recycling to 30 percent, and reaching 50 percent in countries with legislation on e-waste.
5G giveth, & 5G taketh away: the unemployment problem
Technology has always been ambiguous when it comes to the development of humanity.
The printing press. The internet. Electricity. The steam engine. The telegraph. Each of these discoveries and inventions have greatly impacted society as a whole, taking humanity to the forefront of technological development.
These innovations are more often than not the catalyst for transformative change that redefine how general workflows run and constantly rewrite the rules of competitive economic advantage.
With the race for a rapid 5G rollout and expansion from tech companies, telcos and governments worldwide – that promises to shake the very core of how humans interact, work, produce, and play – there will always be winners and losers.
Unlike its predecessors though, 5G is a technological paradigm shift, akin to the shift from typewriter to computer. And it isn’t just a network. 5G will become the underlying fabric of an entire ecosystem of fully connected intelligent sensors and devices, capable of overhauling economic and business policies, and further blurring geographical and cultural borders.
However, this time around, people on the short end of the stick have more to lose than ever before.
Most discussions, forums, conferences and research surrounding 5G reflect what the world stands to gain from this innovative transformation of our day-to-day telecommunications; leaving a major segment of the world’s population to fend for themselves in an ever-changing society: Workers.
“Robots are already starting to take jobs from hourly human workers, and it’s going to continue. We need to stop avoiding the situation and create real solutions to help displaced workers. You can’t simply put a stop on technology innovation. Bans often create worse situations than allowing people to innovate,” says Blake Morgan, a customer experience futurist, in an article she published.
Out with the old, in with the new
Almost all aspects of life, business, and work will change once 5G firmly sinks its feet on the ground worldwide.
The retail industry will be replaced by automation, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR), automatically removing the need to be physically present in a store to try things out.
Self-driving vehicles will replace taxi and truck drivers, and those will likely be the first to get the boot as major tech companies such as Uber and Lyft have already begun spearheading efforts to develop autonomous vehicles.
“5G is going to be as significant as the industrial revolution followed by electricity and automobiles,” Cristiano Amon, President of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, was quoted as saying.
According to numbers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 2 million trucking jobs, at $40,000 per year, GONE. Taxi drivers will count for another 200,000+ jobs at $23,000+ Gone.
We’re still scratching the surface.
Amazon has already opened 21 cashier-less convenient stores, called Amazon Go, in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle, with plans to continue expansion as time etches on. That’s almost 3 million+ jobs, GONE with a drop of a hat; and it doesn’t end there, warehouses, factories, logistics companies, distributors’ jobs will be included.
Another category such as telemedicine and VR tele-education is on the horizon, and rapidly so due to the effects of Covid-19 on nations all around the world. These changes will open the flood gates for insurance companies and educational institutions to reap greater rewards by cutting staff.
The world will always need doctors and teachers, it’s just that humanity will need much fewer due to technology’s ability to allow each worker to reach and serve a larger audience. What will follow is their replacement by lower-skilled, lower-paid machine “handlers.”
A major shift in the job market is coming, and this is no time to sit back hoping it will all go away. Many jobs will be made, but many will be taken away.
Emphasis on human development
While the deployment of 5G technology will create many jobs—22 million globally by 2035, according to IHS Markit— there needs to be adequate forms of training for the transitions to come.
Jobs being replaced by new technologies is nothing new—just ask people who were laid off from customer service or manufacturing positions in recent years. But previously unaffected occupations could be vulnerable in the near future.
“New skills will be needed,” says UK-based Amol Phadke, Managing Director at Accenture, adding that, “these will involve a combination of new recruitment plus the ability to upskill and retrain existing employees.”
However, the jobs created by 5G won’t replace those lost in a one-for-one trade.
Bus drivers won’t be able to hop over to a job in robotics without further education. Plus, at least some of the jobs created by 5G will likely be new occupations in new industries, requiring skills that don’t yet exist.
Some companies are already offering programs to teach employees new skills in emerging fields. A prime example of this is being done by Amazon, who recently announced that it was investing $700 million to reskill 100,000 of its employees in areas such as machine learning and robotics.
But there is a flip side to this approach.
Girls Who Code and similar organizations can’t help 40-Year-Old Women who were laid off and need new skills while also supporting their families. As a society, we’re very bad at imparting new skills to existing workers.
How can tech make sure that workers have the new skills needed? Do companies need to start schools? Do they need to band together and offer blanket training for potential workers, not just for existing ones? How do they make sure those workers don’t starve while they learn?
And there’s always the percentile of people who just can’t re-skill and don’t have it in them to fill the more human-driven roles. This would obviously lead to higher unemployment numbers, which would have a large impact on society and the economy.
It’s easy to say that 5G will accelerate innovation, create more jobs, enhance remote working conditions but if this part of the human population gets left out of the upcoming economic shift, then they will vote, and vote angrily.
The responsibilities of tech companies
Tech companies need to step up, and do it in a smart way, by not only creating jobs, but by introducing qualified workers that will help with the leg work of the upcoming phases ahead.
5G will create jobs as far as the mind can comprehend, since there will be millions upon millions of people in charge of building, maintaining and operating the networks and machines.
New occupations never heard of will start to mushroom uncontrollably, creating content and applications that we can’t even begin to imagine. Most will require skills, some of which haven’t been invented yet.
Bill Gates is especially worried about this.
In an interview with Quartz, he proposes a “robot tax” to fund re-skilling and improve the income of very low-income, human-centered industries like elderly home care, which are trapped in a cycle where there’s just very little money to go around.
Fellow billionaire Mark Cuban agrees.
“Relying on government to solve problems created by the tech industry is just passing the buck, though. It’s asking someone else to clean up your mess. That’s not cool. Tech is creating these problems; tech needs to make a good-faith effort to solve them,” Cuban was quoted as saying.
In parallel, many famous leaders have joined Elon Musk to start something called Open AI, a non-profit artificial intelligence (AI) research company that aims to promote and develop friendly AI in such a way as to benefit humanity as a whole.
However, this is a discussion that needs to happen across the board, or else we will see a greater reliance on social welfare due to a cut in salaries. Governments, tech companies, manufacturers, and the like need to find a strategy to effectively use the displaced workers, even in a small way and fast.
Solar Energy Saving lives in Yemen
As a result of years of conflict within Yemen, public health services have dramatically worsened. UN reports suggest that around half of the health facilities in the country are non-functional or partly functioning. One of the main reasons for this is that long lasting power cuts have become increasingly regular since the outbreak of war. Over the last 5 years and even more so due to power outages in remote and rural areas, Yemenis are unable to access critical health care services to acceptable standards. Some healthcare professionals reported that they occasionally have to work by candlelight. Also a lack of transport caused by fuel shortages has prevented people from reaching the remaining functional clinics in order to seek better health services.
Even before the conflict only two thirds of Yemenis had access to public electricity – one of the lowest in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Inn2017 after two years of war, this number dropped to below 10%.
One solution has presented itself to resolve the solar energy crisis in the country. This is making the most of the country’s almost constant sunlight. The World Bank Yemen Emergency Electricity Access Project started to install solar systems in remote and hard-to-reach areas – specifically schools and health facilities. The World Bank’s International Development Agency is partnered with the United Nations Office for Project Services and are working with local providers to support hundreds of health facilities across Yemen.
Because of this, millions of Yemenis will now have access to dependable healthcare facilities that are powered by solar energy, particularly in rural areas. Clinics will be able to maintain the cold-chain required for immunization to help with access to essential vaccines as well as other medicine and fundamental services.
Poor and vulnerable women in remote areas are generally the least likely to receive adequate health care in Yemen, in particular for pregnancies. But the Yemen Emergency Electricity Access Project also helps ensure that health care workers can reach them.
Facilities had to close as a result of the war, such as the Al-Salam Hospital in Lahi governorate. However, the facility has recently received new solar installations and is now able to take patients once again. Before this intervention, the lack of electricity meant that the hospital staff could not provide imperative health services – especially at night.
The hospital was unable to admit patients for emergency and critical cases, child delivery or obstructed labor cases. After receiving modern and efficient solar power systems the hospital now operates 24 hours per day and seven days a week. They have also just opened a special wing for child delivery and newborn care services.
Health workers in the Al-Salam hospital reported that they no longer see electricity as an issue. They are enthusiastic to see the women in their community being able to deliver their babies in much safer conditions.
The World Bank and the Yemen Emergency Electricity Access Project is also installing solar energy systems in schools and other public facilities to provide reliable and affordable access to clean water, lighting, and other primary services in the communities affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis. This solar power project aims at increasing resilience in rural areas, where around 70% of Yemen’s population lives and where electricity remains a major part of the current development crisis.
02 – Supporting the need for a more positive experience on social media
A study recently conducted by telecom operator O2, has shown that 14-24 year-olds are one of the heaviest phone user groups, and they are also aware of the impact that social media can have on their mental health – with 77% recognising the need for a better relationship with technology and the online world.
With the help and input of young people #OwnYourOwnFeed runs for four weeks at the start of January and will focus mainly on Instagram, incorporating a different weekly theme. There will be a #OwnYourFeed online hub, which will feature stories and advice from 12 specially selected youth ambassadors and also tips from O2 Gurus.
During the first week, young people are encouraged to ‘know’ their feed by becoming more aware of the content they see on their social media pages, and subsequently how that affects them. ‘Know your feed’ is centered around an interactive quiz that young people can take to discover what kind of social media feed they currently have and how this can be made a safer and more positive place for themselves and people they know. In the following weeks, the campaign supports and encourages young people to ‘clean’ their feed by unfollowing accounts that make them feel negatively about themselves, and also to build positive relationships with like-minded people.
Tom Madders, Director of Campaigns at YoungMinds, said:
“Social media is an everyday part of life for most young people which can offer huge social and emotional benefits. But it can also put a lot of pressure on young people and make them feel worse about themselves, especially if they compare their own lives to the apparently perfect lives that others are leading. If you feel like your life doesn’t match up, it can have a negative impact on your mental health.
Young people tell us that they love being connected with social media and couldn’t be without it, they just want to be able to be online in a positive way. They tell us that sometimes their behaviour on social media and the content they see there can bring them down, but they’re not sure how to work out what’s going wrong, and what they can do to make their online world a better place to be.
We hope that #OwnYourFeed will help young people to make their social media experience more positive and give them the tips and advice to take control of their online worlds.”
John, 18, YoungMinds activist, says:
“I’ve noticed when my mental health hasn’t been so good, that I tend to use social media as a distraction. But I, like many others, will often see things that will make me feel isolated and low. I wasn’t even aware at first how what I saw on online could affect me and how damaging it was to my mental health.”
It can be so easy to let social media take over but it’s really important that you control it rather than the other way around. It can be a really positive tool that can not only help you but allows you to support those around you too. That’s why I’m taking part in #OwnYourFeed to make my social feeds more positive for my mental health.”
Nicola Green, Corporate Affairs Director at O2, said: “We know that young people are very switched on to the impact social media can have on their digital wellbeing and mental health – and as a responsible business we have our part to play in helping them live better with tech. That’s why we’ve teamed up with YoungMinds to launch #OwnYourFeed: sharing our tech know-how to help create a peer-to-peer, youth-led, social campaign that’s all about empowering young people to have a more positive time online.”
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