The hidden environmental cost of the Internet of Things

As M2M technologies continue revolutionise industries, there are concerns about the toll that the connected objects that comprise the IoT will exact on the environment

Analyst firm Gartner is forecasting that the IoT will encompass some 30 billion connected devices by 2020. And while networking vendor Cisco has pegged the IoT's value at $14.4 trillion between 2013 and 2022, questions are being asked over its potential environment cost.

What becomes of these thousands of sensors and smart devices once they reach EOL? Bettina Tratz-Ryan, research VP and green IT specialist with Gartner, says that this is one of her biggest concerns around the growth of the IoT.

“Gartner has forecast that by 2020 we will have 26 billion items deployed in the world; what happens to these sensors, once they go into the waste bin?" the analyst asks.

"Are they ending up in landfills? If they’re embedded in these objects and technologies, it’s almost impossible to recycle them."

Australians already generate more than 140,000 tonnes of e-waste each year, according to City of Sydney.

On a global scale, the United Nations University (UNU) estimates that in 2013, 53 million tonnes of e-waste were disposed of worldwide, while around 67 million tonnes of new electrical and electronic equipment were put on the market.

The Stopping the E-waste Problem (StEP) initiative, a joint effort from UN organisations, 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 tonnes — almost 11 times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

It starts at creation

There’s already a shift in manufacturing towards products and materials that are sustainably sourced, but Tratz-Ryan has called on industry to innovate around current materials to produce sensors that can be disposed of in a more environmentally friendly fashion.

“Of course you’ll have electronics and conductors, but these need to be innovated in a way that once they have fulfilled their usefulness, they can actually be disposed of in a very green environmental way – there’s a huge gap that needs filling,” the analyst says.

IoT researchers Alain Louchez and Valerie Thomas from the Georgia Institute of Technology argued in in an article published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) earlier this year that a standardised GPS tracking capability and a universal identification system for devices, similar to Universal Product Code (UPC) and 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 open up new opportunities for the private sector, such as the recovery of rare-earth metals," the article states.

"It would also facilitate the enforcement of regulations restricting the use of certain hazardous substances."

Recovery and recycling

While manufacturers are working to fill this void, the onus falls on the disposal process, particularly the prevention of these devices and sensors ending up in landfills.

In Australia, non-profit TechCollect offers a free e-waste recycling service in response to the Federal Government’s National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS). The NTCRS currently only collects about 35% of Australia’s e-waste, with the aim of collecting 80% by 2022.

"We need people to understand that these products are useful tools, and when you buy them you take on the responsibility for ensuring it is responsibly dealt with when you’ve finished with its use," says Carmel Dollison, TechCollect CEO.

"We’ve got finite resources; [precious metals and rare earths] have been dug up and manufactured into a product... and we need to recover those, and be able to use them in the manufacturing of new products…That can be through re-use, recycling, whatever we have to do to make sure it doesn’t reach the landfill."

Planet Ark also hosts Recycling Near You with information on where to recycle different products, while consumers can also try giving items away through organisations like Oz Recycle.

Can the IoT save the planet?

Although there are legitimate concerns about potential environmental impacts, a range of technologies that sit under the broad umbrella of IoT can play a role in helping businesses reduce their carbon footprints.

A 2013 report published by the Carbon War Room and AT&T — Machine-to-Machine Technologies: Unlocking the Potential of a $1 Trillion Industry — predicts that the IoT could slash global greenhouse gas emissions by 9.1bn tonnes by 2020; the equivalent to 18.6 per cent of global greenhouse emissions in 2011.

Gartner's Tratz-Ryan says the IoT is giving eyes and ears to the discussion around reducing energy consumption.

“Before, enterprises managed consumption patterns based on past data,” the analyst says. “Now they are able to see the kilowatt per hour used, the relationship between kilowatts and carbon, and understand e-waste that sits idle on the network."

The Carbon War Room report argues that M2M technologies can facilitate 'smart grid' based efficiencies in the energy sector, optimise transportation and logistics, cut the energy footprint of buildings, and slash greenhouse gas emissions in the agriculture sector.

"The IoT is providing real strategies for organisations to allow for immediate reduction of carbon footprint,” says Tratz-Ryan.

Shared responsibility

There are some major inroads being taken by leading IT companies such as Apple, HP and Canon to source sustainable, recycled materials for their products, while funding organisations like TechCollect. However, once the product shifts to the hands of the consumer, they have little control.

When consumers or businesses are making a purchase choice, they need to take into account the sustainable design and manufacture of the products, Dollison says.

Considerations include product design for environment and recycling, sustainable sourcing and recycling of materials, energy efficiency, sustainable supply chain and packaging. Dollison says this supports manufacturers “doing the right thing” while supporting the notion of “shared responsibility” in a tangible way.

“We need to understand, what is the impact of the products I’m buying and what happens to them when they leave my hands? For instance in large business, a lot of companies will lease computer equipment and at the end of life it may be refurbished and shipped offshore for a second life. So the consideration businesses need to make is what country is that product being offshored to? And do they have a recycling infrastructure or are we creating an e-waste problem in another country?

“It’s that due diligence; asking 'is there a way I can circumvent e-waste problems with the decisions within my company?'”

An environmental procurement tool — EPEAT — already serves to help buyers compare and select environmentally friendly products, and provides manufacturers with environmental criteria for the design and development of products.

ITU also hosts a broad reference site on e-waste, including a toolkit on end-of-life management of ICT equipment, published in 2012 and developed in partnership with more than 50 ICT companies and environmental organisations, and generated new technical standards.

“There is much more focus today on triple bottom line and oftentimes when push comes to shove the environmental arm falls away, but we all need to be aware that we have a shared responsibility,” says Dollison.

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Tags businesssustainabilitydevicesgreen ITresourcesrecyclinge-wastepredictionssmart technologysensorsanalystdue diligenceInternet of Thingsrare earthselectronic wasteIoTWearable Techdisposalprecious metals

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