Embracing circularity for a sustainable future
Telecommunications has played a pivotal role in helping the world achieve unprecedented technological feats. The march towards ground-breaking innovation in connectivity, digitalization and automation will revolutionize almost all aspects of our lives. But along with it comes a profound responsibility. Ensuring that the critical services are provided with minimal fallout on a climate-stressed planet.
The need for a robust communications infrastructure that can meet the extremely complex and varied expectations of subscribers has been rising steadily. It soared even higher since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which in turn has compelled telcos to consume more energy than ever. It’s not only emissions that should be a matter for concern. Usage of materials and waste are also major contributors to the industry’s carbon footprint.
Old is new
Material use constitutes around 40 percent of global emissions and currently a mere 10 percent of materials are treated as circular. Reuse, recycle and refurbish should be the guiding principles for the future. In that respect optimum use of available resources, efficiency and digitalization are essential to inject circular practices when creating new products and services. In simple terms, circular economy promotes the concept of retaining the value of components, products and resources by extending their life cycle and optimizing waste management.
Nokia adopted circular practices a quarter of a century ago while following the classic waste hierarchy model. The priority is to avoid generating waste through digitalization, operational efficiency and by extending the life of the product. Since it is always not possible to dematerialize everything, proper waste management procedures are equally important wherein we first explore avenues to reuse, followed by material recycling. The very last option is recovery and landfill.
“Collaboration with the supply chain to increase the use of recycled materials in the components they provide to us, tracking material origin and reporting practises development to understand the recycled content are some of the additional measures we take to adopt the principles of circularity,” she adds.
Nokia has been accepting legacy products from customers for years, even if they were manufactured by a third party. On several occasions these are repaired and reused by customers, refurbished internally, or broken down for parts harvesting. In some instances, components are recycled for raw materials for a completely different application or sector. Such an approach reduces the need for raw material extraction and lowers emissions.
Circular economy in Nokia
Nokia has made significant progress in adopting circular practices and intends to do more by setting clearly defined objectives.
In 2020, Nokia processed 5,870 metric tons of obsolete products and parts. Out of these 79,400 items with a combined weight of 570 metric tons were reused. Approximately 5,250 metric tons of old equipment was dispatched for energy and materials recovery and 50 tons to landfill. The result, 99 percent of the material content in our products were fit for utilization.
In the same year, Nokia put in motion a policy to improve the use of recycled materials in its products. To that effect, we worked in close coordination with cast aluminium parts suppliers to better understand the sourcing of raw materials and sought avenues to increase recycled content in components. A study later showed that 54 percent of the 23,200 metric tons of cast aluminium parts used in Nokia products had recycled materials in them. Challenges, however, remain pertaining to material purity.
“We are studying more materials in the supply chain but more needs to be done. We have to work across the industries to develop the tracking mechanism, set boundaries and definitions on what can be reported as recycled content,” says Tanskanen.
Attempts have also been made to increase the circularity of plastics used in products. In 2020, again, Nokia tried to improve the recycling prospects of plastics through the reduced use of non-halogen free materials and investigated whether mix post-consumer recyclates could be mixed with virgin plastics to produce product housings.
It’s noteworthy to mention here that Nokia saved 31,600 tons CO2 through circular practices in that year.
Setting the right standards
As the industry mulls the best course of action to chart an effective circularity strategy, it is imperative that appropriate standards and frameworks are created which could help telecom companies to gauge their performance.
Nokia has contributed actively by sharing best practices and creating telecommunication specific circular economy standards in the ITU-T (International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication standardization sector) and the ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute). We joined the JAC forum to contribute to the debate on circularity with telecom service provider customers and received a best practice in circular economy recognition.
Going green with circularity
According to the World Resources Institute, more than 100 billion tons of resources enter the global economy every year, out of which a mere 8.6 percent gets recycled and reused. Such arbitrary exploitation is not sustainable and thus new ways of operating and partnering is the need of the hour if we were to realize the goal of a true circular economy.
Telecommunications operators will play a key role on that front. For circularity to be a success, cooperation across the whole value chain is essential. The industry must set ambitious goals and track performance. Traditional business models will have to be revisited and the status quo challenged. At Nokia, we have been following well-established circular practices for decades that enable us to utilize the full value of our products.
“We will be introducing a circularity target which will look at different areas of our business. From the office, R&D labs to product takeback and final assembly lines. Our goal is to develop material management to such an extent, so that by 2030 there will be no need for landfilling,” Tanskanen adds.
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