Implementing Circular Economy in the Telecom Sector

circular economy telecom sector

Businesses across the world are making waves and implementing environmentally friendly practices to tackle the environmental emergency. One way businesses are ensuring their success is by adopting circular initiatives like refurbishing old tech, recycling, maintaining products, and reusing. 

As part of their business sustainability strategies, the telecom sector has been slow to address sustainability, and it is likely due to their minimal impact concerning greenhouse gas emissions. In saying that, we are running out of time, and we need all players, despite the size of their footprint, to implement eco-friendly changes, so we can secure a better world for future generations. Keep reading as we dive into how we can make the telecom sector circular. 

What is circular economy? 

For those who are unfamiliar with the circular economy, it is a system whereby materials never become waste and nature is regenerated. In other words, materials and products are kept in circulation thanks to processes such as refurbishment, maintenance, reuse, recycling, composting, and remanufacturing. 

The circular economy addresses climate change and other worldwide challenges, such as waste, pollution, and biodiversity loss, by decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. In our current linear economy, we extract materials from the Earth, create products and eventually discard them as waste.

Under the circular economy, we stop waste from being produced in the very first instance. The circular economy gives us a pathway to transform this take-make-waste system to help us better manage resources, create higher-quality products, and become more resource-efficient. 

Circular economy principles 

The circular economy system is based on three primary principles. Eliminating pollution and waste is the first principle of the circular economy. Since we operate a take-make-waste system, we end up throwing a lot of products away. A lot of this waste finds its way into incinerators or landfills where it causes further harm to the planet. 

Given that our resources are finite, this is not a system that can work in the long term. With the circular economy, we can start to consider waste a design flaw rather than a traditional step in our product chain. The circular economy tackles waste and pollution due to its specification that any design’s materials re-enter the economy at the end of their use. 

Most products could be circulated through practices like reusing, sharing, repairing, remanufacturing, refurbishing, or simply just maintaining. In the circular economy, recycling is the very last resort and the closest stage to ‘throwing items away’. With this high focus on design, we can effectively eliminate the idea of waste. This first principle allows us to start to close the materials loop and turn off the tap that is currently sending high amounts of waste into incinerators and landfills daily.

The emphasis on upstream design means waste can be stopped before it is even created. Circulating materials and products is the second principle of the circular economy. It refers to keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible. With this approach, nothing becomes waste and the intrinsic value of materials and products is maintained. 

Products and materials can be kept in circulation via their technical and biological cycles. In the technical cycle, products are remanufactured, reused, and repaired. With the biological cycle, materials are returned to the earth through processes such as anaerobic digestion and composting. Ultimately, for this second principle to be implemented successfully, products and materials must be designed with their eventual circulation considered. 

Finally, the third principle of the circular economy is to regenerate nature. This is achieved by moving away from the take-make-waste linear economic model and embracing an economic model where products are kept in circulation. By making the switch, we can leave more room for nature to thrive and support natural processes.

Through this shift, we transform the focus from extraction to regeneration and work towards building natural capital. For example, we utilise farming practices that enable nature to increase biodiversity, rebuild soils and return biological materials to the earth. 

At present, the majority of these materials are lost after use and the land used to grow them is being depleted of nutrients. Once we move to this regenerative model, we start to emulate natural systems. Adopting this third principle means doing less harm to the planet and focusing on how we can improve it. 

How the telecom sector can go circular 

The demand for companies to implement sustainable initiatives and take climate action is growing. Pressure on the telecom sector has been rather low until now since they account for around 1.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

In saying that, compared to other industries, they are still far behind when it comes to sustainability. Beyond carbon emissions, waste is a big contributing factor to the telecom industry’s environmental footprint. It is a resource-intensive industry, and so they have a responsibility to curb waste streams.

This is where the circular economy could enable the telecoms industry to achieve its environmental objectives. Some telecom businesses are already implementing circular economy practices to achieve these goals. However, a lack of education surrounding sustainability and its importance means there is likely a gap that must be addressed. Below are some ways the telecom sector can go circular.

Get educated

Businesses within the telecom sector can appropriately address this gap by getting a sustainability education. They can do this with courses available online, resources, and more. Education is crucial to not only knowing how to take genuine climate action but also to understanding why these actions must be taken.

At the Institute of Sustainability Studies (ISS), we offer the Diploma in Business Sustainability course to help businesses get that education. The course is less time-intensive than a lot of other courses out there and the modules are curated by experts in their respective fields. This course also has a dedicated module on the circular economy, so you will come away understanding everything there is to know to make your business more circular. 

Evaluate your current business model

Once you have received your sustainability and circular economy education, you will have a greater understanding of how you can build a more circular organisation. From this point, you should assess your current business model and determine how it isn’t circular. 

Following that, you can then implement circular economy practices throughout the business. Some such practices could include looking at how you can extend product lifecycles and how to recover materials and downcycle equipment. You should also pay close attention to circular measures like leasing instead of owning and maximising efficiency to reduce costs. 

Join forces with other like-minded businesses enabling circularity across the value chain

Next, you want to put your learnings and assessment into practice. Although the telecoms sector is inclined towards circularity in its operations, efforts must be accelerated. 

In order to successfully transition to a circular future, significant partnerships will be required across industries, as well as crucial collaborations with suppliers, NGOs, investors, consumers, and business customers to establish a circular model across the value chain.

Set ambitious objectives and always track your progress

From this point, you should start setting your environmental objectives. Think about the issues your business could act on and make sure the goals you set are measurable. Ultimately, the goals should be targeted at reusing, recycling, and reducing. 

You also need to ensure your organisation is achieving those goals, so make sure to track your progress and regularly check in. If you are not achieving your objectives in the timeframe, think about what changes you could make to drive progress. Setting goals is not enough; you need to follow them up with period performance reviews. 

Market circularity as a pivotal element of your sustainability strategy

As a final step, it is vital you communicate your circular efforts with consumers and the wider public. Be transparent, open, and honest, telling them where you are in your journey and your future plans to build a circular organisation. You can utilise the strength of marketing here to craft appealing and captivating stories on how others can also implement your initiatives. 

All of this helps not only position your company as a leader in the space but also spreads awareness about circularity and the importance of switching to circular models. This awareness will help consumers become increasingly aware of the impact their choices have on the planet, and from there, you inspire them to drive positive change too.

Summary

While the telecom sector has a minimal impact on greenhouse gas emissions, they are still a resource-heavy industry. For that reason, the industry is well-positioned to drive the implementation of the circular economy across the world. Numerous telecom businesses are already implementing circular practices, knowing that this is how they can contribute and take climate action. 

Some of those taking action include Vodafone, Telia, Proximus, and BT. There are numerous benefits for telecom businesses that adopt circularity. By switching to circular models, they can also help to address a massive issue our society is facing that contributes greatly to the environmental emergency: e-waste

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