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As ‘Internet of Things’ Grows, So Do E-waste Concerns

Image Credit: Flickr, begin again

The Internet of Things (IoT) will include some 30 billion connected devices by 2020, according to analyst firm Gartner. Although the IoT holds promise for promoting global sustainability, there is a growing concern of what becomes of these devices when they reach end of life. Many end up in landfills because, when they are embedded in objects and technologies, it is almost impossible to recycle them.

In 2013, around 53 million tons of e-waste were disposed of worldwide, while around 67 million tons of new electrical and electronic equipment were put on the market, according to the United Nations University (UNU). The Stopping the E-waste Problem (StEP) initiative, a joint effort from UN organizations, grassroots groups and industry, predicts that by 2017 the total annual volume of e-waste will have risen by a third, to 65.4 million tons—nearly 11 times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Gartner says there is already a shift in manufacturing towards products and materials that are sustainably sourced, but there is still a need for industry to innovate around current materials to produce sensors that can be disposed of in a more environmentally friendly fashion.

IoT researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology claim that a standardized GPS tracking capability and a universal identification system for devices, similar to the ISBN code used on books, could help to facilitate better end-of-life management. This could help to overcome the cost challenges of collection and recycling, and create new opportunities for the private sector, such as the recovery of rare-earth metals. It would also facilitate the enforcement of regulations restricting the use of certain hazardous substances.

Until manufacturers address this on their end, there will need to be a significant focus on the disposal process to prevent these devices and sensors from ending up in landfills.

Despite waste concerns, the IoT is still helping businesses reduce their carbon footprints. Global greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 9.1 billion metric tons by 2020, or 18.6 percent of all emissions in 2011, through the widespread adoption of machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies, according to a 2013 report by AT&T and the Carbon War Room. M2M technologies can facilitate 'smart grid' based efficiencies in the energy sector, optimize transportation and logistics, cut the energy footprint of buildings, and slash greenhouse gas emissions in the agriculture sector.

Although leading IT companies such as Apple, HP and Canon are making major efforts to source sustainable, recycled materials for their products, it ultimately comes down to consumer purchasing choices. Consumers or businesses should take into account the sustainable design and manufacture of the products when making a purchase choice. Considerations include product design for environment and recycling, sustainable sourcing and recycling of materials, energy efficiency, sustainable supply chain and packaging.

In July, Dell, Intel and Samsung were among the six companies that came together to establish a new industry consortium focused on improving interoperability and defining the connectivity requirements for the billions of devices that will make up the Internet of Things (IoT). The Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC) is focused on defining a common communications framework based on industry standard technologies to wirelessly connect and intelligently manage the flow of information among personal computing and emerging IoT devices, regardless of form factor, operating system or service provider.

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Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a sustainability strategist and storyteller on Edelman's Business + Social Purpose team where he works with some of the world's leading brands on corporate sustainability strategy and stakeholder engagement. With several years of… [Read more about Mike Hower]


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