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appliance drawer at home; everyone has one, and more often than not, it’s filled with pallets of once beloved but now outdated devices – from smartphones, tablets, cameras, and the like.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.
Digital inclusion: what is being done for vulnerable members of society?
As the wave of digital transformation carries us to exciting new heights of progress in business and personal development, industries must stop to consider the challenges of digital access faced by more vulnerable groups in society.
In this era of rapid technological advancements, enterprises are realizing the need for greater initiatives to encourage growth and participation of all customers, so that no one is left behind. “It’s time for the mobile industry to take steps to ensure our products and services are accessible, unlocking the power of connectivity so that all people thrive,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA.
GSMA driving digital inclusion
Industry organization GSMA has launched the “Principles for Driving the Digital Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities” aiming at encouraging the mobile industry to help close the mobile disability gap.
The industry has developed guidelines with the help of disability and accessibility experts and mobile operators, outlining three regulations to increase digital inclusion for disabled people. These principles have been devised to ensure disability inclusion is adopted at every level of an organization, identifying how to reach and serve people with disabilities and delivering inclusive products and services.
One of the solutions proposed is to combine multiple assistive technologies in a single device, making mobile phones cost-effective tools to facilitate inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities.
However, persons with disabilities are less likely to own smartphones and use mobile internet than persons without disabilities, according to a research by GSMA. The World Health Organization (WHO) also estimates that 80% of persons with disabilities live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), which presents long-term challenges for initiatives that aim to break digital access barriers in under-resourced settings.
Innovation to help serve people with disabilities
In addition, some of the ways for an organization to reach and serve communities include collecting and analyzing data to better understand how disabled customers are using services. Conducting frequent consumer research to find out if the services are meeting the needs of customers with disabilities.
According to GSMA, several other options are present to enhance the access for disabled people and increase the chances of accessing digital platforms by developing handsets focusing on content, as well as creating products and services that are affordable and accessible to all. “Putting provisions in place such as customer service advisors trained in teaching customers how to use such devices as potential ways to ensure the delivery of inclusive products and services.”
Closing the digital access gap is no easy feat; it requires collective collaboration and long-term planning from governments and industries alike. GSMA-driven initiatives will help raise awareness, reduce inequalities and drive change.
Crowdfunding: A silent hero in the Covid-19 era
As the world preps itself for a second wave of Covid-19 and vaccine development continues, one cannot deny the hardships humanity has faced this year.
Businesses of all shapes and sizes struggled, economies slowed, and people were overworked from the comfort of their own homes. But if there’s one thing that defines successful entrepreneurs and business leaders, it’s their determination in the face of adversity.
The silent hero and lifeline for that determination has been online crowdfunding.
Platforms such as Indiegogo, Patreon, GoFundMe, and others were the lifeline of many small to medium enterprises (SMEs), as well as solo entrepreneurs working away at their passion projects from the confines of their living rooms.
During 2020, visits to crowdfunding platforms tripled, as 300,000 people actively donated to different projects and causes this month alone, according to numbers by Deloitte.
During the height of the pandemic, brick-and-mortar businesses experienced a painfully screeching halt to their operations, while digitally literate businesses have fared much better during the lockdown.
According to numbers revealed by Indiegogo, the platform witnessed an increase in overall traffic at nearly 14 percent compared to the same time last year, and daily funds raised on the site were up 24 percent compared to the second half of March 2019.
“An air conditioner, an e-bike, and a coffee grinder gained top billing on Indiegogo in March 2020, revealing a world stuck at home and raring to get back into the world,” the report by the crowdfunding site highlighted.
While a world stuck at home sought to fund passion projects across the aisle, there were several Covid-19 related campaigns published on these sites. This is cause for concern since cyberattacks have skyrocketed during 2020, mainly due to hackers highly exploiting the pandemic.
According to India-based market researcher, Market Research Future, the Covid-19 outbreak has significantly altered the healthcare industry worldwide, throwing several challenges at it.
The overwhelming scenario, since the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic, has been further aggravated by the alarming rise in cybersecurity threats.
“Malicious hackers are leveraging the pandemic by launching a slew of ransom-ware attacks and phishing campaigns. It is not surprising that following the onset of SARS-CoV-2 and the increased vulnerability due to the lockdown, hackers have become even more active than ever before,” the report highlighted.
Many of these crowdfunding platforms have taken note of this and acted on being wary of these potentially illicit activities; some of these platforms have kept a close eye on Covid-19 related campaigns, as well as stepping up their review processes using the U.S. Department of Justice’s guidelines toward predatory campaigns that take advantage of people in need.
“Accordingly, products claiming to be anti-viral or specifically mentioning the coronavirus are actively being monitored by our Trust and Safety team. Without providing proof of efficacy, the campaigns that we contact and/or fall under this category will be taken down. We have no intention of allowing people to take advantage of the Indiegogo community by using Covid-19 as a selling point,” Indiegogo said in a statement.
Crowdfunding has grown in popularity in an attempt to help startups, SMEs, and even philanthropic causes receive funding during these hard times.
Not only that, but these platforms have opened the door for individuals as well as NGOs to create awareness campaigns about Covid-19 while raising funds for procuring emergency kits and to assist food banks.
In parallel, crowdfunding is also actively working to assist the people most effected by the pandemic and its lockdown such as maids, watchmen, plumbers, electricians, and the like.
This has shown that despite national lockdowns, these initiatives have evoked a sense community, solidarity, as well as philanthropic emotions with others.
One can contribute as much as they like according to their will and capacity, without feeling shy or bad about anything. Thus, an important aspect of these platforms is that it provides an avenue for contribution without any social pressure.
Even though if we find ourselves stuck at home, many people are trying to maintain momentum in their daily lives. The pandemic has proved to be an opportunity for people across the world to explore their passion for social initiatives in their otherwise busy lives.
Connecting the unconnected: closing the digital divide in rural areas
Come rain or shine, it has become the standard norm for us to enjoy uninterrupted access to the Internet to keep us consistently connected, entertained, informed and working.
But not all of us are and will experience this right away, especially when it comes to 5G.
More than 700 million people in rural areas around the world still cannot make phone calls or access the network, according to GSMA statistics. By the end of 2018, nearly 400,000 villages around the world had no network coverage.
The digital divide between cities and the countryside is widening, especially the gap between remote and urban areas.
The fifth generation of networks in rural areas and the elimination of the digital divide isn’t a new phenomenon; closing the digital gap is highly needed not only to deliver Internet access at broadband speeds for rural consumers, but also allows for the creation of a smart countryside to match the emergence of smart cities.
While coverage-related challenges have been plaguing rural areas around the world, there’s also the problem of penetration for fixed broadband. In the U.S., only 63 percent had access to rural broadband, versus 75 percent in urban, and 79 percent in suburban areas, according to U.S.-based think tank, Pew Research Center (PRC).
“The mobile broadband rural penetration was 71 percent versus 79 percent for both urban and suburban areas,” the report added.
Closing or reducing the digital divide requires both coverage and penetration-related initiatives – especially in a world where demand has changed because of the pandemic.
Governments, telcos, and the private have taken note of this, and have already started to fight back against this connectivity blackout.
In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has established the 5G Fund for Rural America, which will make available up to $9 billion in federal subsidies over 10 years to bring voice and 5G broadband services to unserved rural areas.
“The FCC continues to take steps to facilitate the deployment of next-generation 5G services nationwide, it is also working to ensure that rural America is not left behind,” the Commission said in a statement back in October.
The funds are expected to support the deployment of 5G networks that will not only provide rural areas with critical access to telehealth, telework, remote learning opportunities, and precision agriculture, but will also drive job creation and economic growth.
Across the Pacific Ocean, South Korea’s government in partnership with the country’s top three mobile operators have launched a task force that aims to expand 5G coverage into rural areas of the country.
“The task force has the main goal of allowing roaming network sharing among SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus in areas where population density is low,” South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT said in a statement.
Under the terms of this collaboration agreement, each mobile carrier will set up communication networks in designated areas, which can be shared with the other two, after they reach an agreement on the issue within the next six months.
According to the statement, South Korea’s 5G subscribers reached 7.86 million in July, up 487,190 from the previous month, accounting for 11.3 percent of the country’s 69.8 million mobile subscriptions.
The three operators launched 5G technology and services back in April 2019, and 5G networks are available mostly in large cities. The government previously said that the carriers had already deployed over 115,000 5G base stations
While in China, Huawei released the RuralStar solution back in 2017, which provides network coverage for over 20 million people in rural areas across the country.
In parallel, Huawei later launched the simplified RuralStar Lite solution in 2019 for rural areas with small populations.
“This solution not only allows 100 million people in rural areas to access the network, but also improves people’s livelihood and assists enterprises in fulfilling their social responsibilities,” Huawei said in a statement.
While connecting the unconnected has been on the menu for a long time coming, the impact that 5G will deliver to rural areas will be transformative for the world’s countryside.
Let’s jump right in.
Connecting rural schools to the Internet has been a long-time priority for many lawmakers across the world. While these educational institutions have sought alternatives, such as opening up after school hours for students who need high-speed internet access for their homework.
This model provided relief when the needs were limited to homework.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put rural broadband needs under the microscope, widening the scope from homework, to bringing the entire educational experience online.
These gaps not only prevent rural inhabitants from education but increases the already growing rates of the brain drain, as talented students seek better opportunities outside the countryside, driven by their ambition to earn a college degree.
Which is why there needs to be immediate focus on education in these areas to reverse the urbanization trend.
Introducing 5G connectivity within these areas will not only close the digital divide, but will allow small businesses to prosper, and create more, which would attract investments into a plethora of opportunities such as smart farming.
So as the saying goes, “build it, and they will come.”
In urban areas, the transition to working from home pretty much happened overnight. Any information worker with a laptop and a video conferencing app could leverage their home broadband and start working from home.
This transition wasn’t as smooth as the rest of the world, due partially to fewer professionals in rural areas who work in digital industries, while the already existing broadband network supporting a family of workers and students at home had become bottlenecked.
Thus, enhancing the areas’ digital infrastructure can have a hidden benefit.
“Rural communities must consider the role their broadband infrastructure will play in attracting digital workers. Educated professionals can pursue a digital career without moving to a city in the first place,” a report by Swedish telecom giant Ericsson said.
According to the report, Digital professionals are packing up their urban life and finding a better lifestyle in rural communities.
“Any community with aspirations to attract both these types of professionals and tap into a new “brain-train” needs excellent broadband infrastructure,” the report added.
Thus, digital infrastructure will be the decisive factor for anyone looking to settle down in rural areas.
There is a myriad of obstacles facing healthcare in rural areas to begin with.
First, its attracting educated doctors and medical professionals to relocate in areas with limited career paths.
Weirdly enough, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the supply aspect of things since medical professionals have championed remote consultations overnight. And as efforts of connecting such areas to the rest of the world increase, these communities could be on the heels of leveraging telehealth to its maximum potential.
With the worldwide rollout of 5G, rural communities could be the prime target for both public and private sectors to heavily invest in medical and surgical facilities to provide healthcare for inhabitants.
Closing the digital divide will require heaps of work, investments, and coverage but the emergence of the fifth generation of networks will prove to be a strong weapon in the fight to bring fixed and mobile broadband infrastructure.
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