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The hidden costs of IoT and smart cities

John Gertsakis
John Gertsakis Product Stewardship Australia. Photo: ERIN JONASSON

Smart city technologies and the Internet of Things may have a downside that policy and processes are yet to address – the potential to add to growing volumes of ewaste.

Already for our standard electronic and digital devices, Australians generate the world’s fourth highest per capita volume of ewaste, according to the newly founded Ewaste Watch thinktank.

Collectively, we generate around 574,000 tonnes per annum of unwanted mobile phones, TVs, computers and peripherals per annum, and the nation imports around 100,000 tonnes of new ones each year.

Mobile phones alone comprise at least 9.3 million objects imported annually.

Ewaste Watch director and co-founder John Gertsakis says there is not enough collaboration, research and action on how to effectively deal with the rapid growth of electronics and the associated socio-environmental impacts.

The main focus of activities to address ewaste to date has been recycling, he says, while the impacts of scarce and non-renewable materials used in electronic are not being effectively addressed.

“The reality, however, is that recycling alone will not deliver the sustainable outcomes and materials conservation required,” Gertsakis says.

“Greater attention is needed on product durability, reuse, repair, sharing and productive material-use to turn the tide on ewaste and create circular electronics.”

As more smart devices from intelligent street lighting through to digitally-enabled fridges and dishwashers enter the market, the volumes of waste are set to grow.

Is anything being done to solve the problem?

Existing stewardship schemes such as the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme are only capturing part of the waste stream.

Other categories of end-of-life electronics are still largely going straight to landfill including small appliances, power tools and other devices such as GPS units.

There are some emerging stewardship initiatives around battery recycling and solar panels, however, these are voluntary programs. Some voluntary schemes such as the Lighting Council of Australia’s Fluorocycle initiative do not yet capture new technologies such as LED or digitally-enhanced products such as lights with inbuilt sensors or smart controls.

EWaste Watch is now calling on the federal government to expand the NTCRS to include any product with a plug or a battery and ensure they are diverted from landfill and responsibly recycled.

This suggested scope includes Internet of Things devices, photovoltaic panels and inverters, energy storage systems and all consumer electronic products.

Gertsakis toldThe Fifth Estate it is also looking at the responsibility of those designing, manufacturing and marketing IoT products to consider end-of-life concerns.

“IoT devices can bring much benefit and value, but they also have the potential to be a major contributor to future ewaste levels, and this includes the batteries used to power them.

“The design and manufacture of IoT devices needs to account for disassembly, repair and recycling features, just as ICT brands have integrated design for recycling into their laptops, printers and smart phones. “

He says that given the projections of how many connected devices will be in use by 2020, it is vital those driving smart city and smart building projects have a “responsible forward strategy that accounts for the products and equipment they embed into our environments.”

“This means comprehensive attention to their ultimate fate and ensuring they don’t end up in landfill as wasted resources.”

A clear product stewardship approach to IoT devices is essential

These approaches will also be what separates the responsible and progressive suppliers from those who are “indifferent” about their environmental obligations.

Gertsakis says any product should be where possible be refurbished and then re-used at end-of-life or disassembled for materials recovery and recycling.

Existing voluntary schemes such as Australian Lighting Council’s Fluorocycle program need to “keep up with technology” – as well as rising community expectations around waste reduction and responsible manufacturing.

Victoria’s ban on ewaste is a good start

In Victoria, legislation is potentially going to put some manufacturers, suppliers and asset managers in a spot of bother regarding electronics and smart devices.

Gertsakis notes that the government’s ban on ewaste going to landfill kicks in on 1 July this year.

This is a “key signal” to brands, manufacturers and suppliers that they need to take ewaste seriously and provide a convenient take-back, reuse or recycling service to consumers.

The legislation affects a much wider scope of products than just computers and TVs. Whitegoods, major appliances, HVAC and lighting equipment are among the types of products that will be subject to the ban.

But beyond what the regulations may dictate, Gertsakis says suppliers and manufacturers “should be providing a consumer-friendly product recovery, reuse or recycling options now.

“Waste reduction is moving from the take-make-waste model, into avoidance, circular thinking, avoidance, closed loops and socially responsible products and services.”

Ewaste Waste and Institute of Sustainable Futures investigating the whole class of products

The new Ewaste Watch institute is partnering with the Institute of Sustainable Futures at University of Technology Sydney for research into better approaches for the whole class of products. Professor of Resource Futures Damien Giurco will chair the thinktank’s advisory group.

“Ewaste Watch is driven by three key questions: are we doing enough; can we do better; and what are the solutions beyond recycling?” Gertsakis says.

It will undertake activities including information, education, engagement and activation of key stakeholders across the electronics life-cycle from design and manufacturing through to retail, government and the general public.

“Business as usual and voluntary programs have barely made a dent in the total volume of ewaste arising, so the urgency for step-change improvement, new business models and positive disruption is now overwhelmingly obvious,” Ewaste Watch co-founder and director Rose Read says.

“Circular solutions for electronics across the complete product life-cycle is a cornerstone for Ewaste Watch, as is the need to empower consumers to buy less, choose well and make it last.”

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