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Three keys to more environmentally friendly 5G technology

(Image credit: / Who Is Danny)

Across U.S. political party lines, there’s one thing both sides of the aisle agree on: Expanding 5G is a high priority for the nation. Current White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, is pushing the Pentagon to develop a federally backed, national 5G network. President-elect Joe Biden also plans to include 5G in a new $300 billion government R&D program on breakthrough technologies.

Bipartisan investment in 5G is crucial for the development of smart cities, i.e., cities that use various advanced technologies and sensors to gather data. Accenture notes the importance of 5G in making cities smart, stating “5G can enable cities to automate functions from buildings operations to traffic safety, and connect buildings, streets and a wide range of devices.”

While the automation and connectivity benefits of 5G can’t be denied, before smart cities become a reality, we must consider the materials used in 5G technology — and their potential impact on our environment. Because while protecting the environment is simply the right thing to do, it’s also good for business — nearly 70 percent of North American consumers believe it’s critical that a brand is sustainable or eco-friendly.

The environmental risks and considerations of 5G tech

It’s on telecommunication companies, device manufacturers and material suppliers to act responsibly as 5G evolves and smart cities develop. If the industry doesn’t keep 5G green, it could do more harm than good to the environment. By taking appropriate measures, the transition to 5G and smart cities can be done in an eco-friendly manner by industry stakeholders. 

1. Sustainable base stations

The 4G cellular service consumers currently use is conducted over long frequency waves with tall cell towers. 5G, on the other hand, leverages base stations, which require a clear line of sight to the devices they communicate with to properly function.

Base stations use high radio frequency (RF) power amplifiers to operate, which are made of reliable materials. Component materials include precious metals in processes such as plating and bonding, and recycling these materials is critical for a stable supply. Neglecting to recycle could also impact the future material source supply for 6G technology, which will be vital for the expanded use of autonomous driving vehicles and greater connectivity between devices in smart cities.      

2. Consumer recycling of old smart devices

Experts predict that by the end of 2025, there will be 2.6 billion global 5G subscriptions. An increase in 5G users is necessary for optimal smart city operations because smart devices are the interface between end-users and smart city tech. However, this hyper growth brings a potential dilemma — billions of old, non-5G smart devices.

Smart devices that end up in landfills without proper recycling become e-waste and their metals can also bleed into soil and groundwater. Even though electronics only comprise 2 percent of landfill garbage, they’re responsible for 70 percent of landfills’ toxic waste. Because of these potential consequences, smart device manufacturers and material suppliers must serve as recycling resources and engage in consumer education on proper recycling methods.

I’ve already called on suppliers and manufacturers to come together for joint recycling programs on smart devices, an effort that will be crucial to ensure old devices are properly recycled. A potential model to account for the disposal of old devices is the Apple Trade In program. Through Apple’s program, consumers can trade in their eligible device for a purchase credit, receive an Apple gift card or, if their device isn’t eligible, Apple will recycle it for free.

3. Use of conflict-free materials

“Conflict materials” are minerals that are sourced from mines in conflict zones of various African countries. These mines are under control of armed groups who exploit workers and use funds from materials sold to commit crimes against humanity.

The SEC currently requires publicly traded companies in the U.S. to disclose sourcing information on any conflict minerals that are used from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or adjoining countries in their products. The law helps establish transparency and due diligence measures on sourcing minerals, but does not require sourcing to be from conflict-free mines altogether.

With 5G rapidly growing into a large industry enterprise, stakeholders should establish conflict-free certification of the materials used in 5G technology. A good example is the EU’s Conflict Minerals Regulation, which requires refiners, smelters, manufacturers and importers of products containing tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold to responsibly source these minerals from conflict-free sources. For example, TANAKA’s smelter in Japan is certified as “conflict-free” to ensure safe upstream supplying. 

Beyond the humanitarian responsibility of conflict-free sourcing, there are environmental implications as well. Cobalt — which is required for 5G smart device batteries — is mainly mined in the DRC. These mines have shown extremely high radioactivity levels and their waste repeatedly pollutes rivers and drinking water in the country.

Many stakeholders are already committed to conflict-free standards. But given the scale of work required to develop 5G and smart cities, guaranteeing these measures can have a major impact on human lives and the environment as a result. 

It’s an exciting time to watch 5G transform our lives for the better through greater connectivity and smart cities. But we can’t forget the responsibilities that come with that transformation. Industry stakeholders can set a new environmentally friendly standard to follow by investing in recycling of base station materials and consumer smart devices, and making conflict-free materials a requirement across the entire supply chain funnel.

William Crockett Jr., vice president, TANAKA Precious Metals (opens in new tab)

William Crockett Jr., is vice president at TANAKA Precious Metals.