5G-debris: challenges and opportunities By Shan Jaffry

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Modern digitisation has pushed the limits of mobile phone communication, operated by cellular technology, to evolve at an astounding pace. Although not very popular in Pakistan, many countries are currently relishing the benefits of the fourth-generation (4G) of cellular technology and some of these countries will welcome the next generation, ie, 5G, within two years, ie, by 2020.

On the topside, 5G will provide extraordinary capabilities never seen before, for example, provision of 1,000 times more speed than 4G. However, the flipside of 5G will bring a frightening and unwanted, but inevitable by-product as electronic junk.

Currently, nearly 400 tonnes of e-waste lands on Pakistani harbours every year, which will rise to unprecedented levels, causing a mammoth amount of 5G debris. Under the shadows of 5G debris, Pakistan will face some serious threats which can be turned into an exciting opportunity for the country’s economy. According to a 2013 study by Professor Thomas Graedel at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the rare metals used in smartphone manufacturing are hard to mine and once depleted, they will be even harder to substitute. The amount of such metals used in a single phone seems trivial. A smartphone thrown into trash contains 0.2g gold, 14g copper, 0.34g silver and 15g palladium. However, according to Statisa — a global market research organisation — an estimated 4.3 billion smartphones were manufactured between 2014 and 2016, consuming 860kg gold, 60.2 kilotonne copper, 1.46 kilotonne silver and 63 kilotonne palladium.

Contrastingly, a tonne of iPhone can give 300 times more gold than a tonne of gold-ore itself. It is predicted that in 2020 alone, an estimated 1.7 billion smartphones will be manufactured globally, depleting a gigantic amount of earth resources. According to Cisco — a telecom giant — the number of gadgets will reach 20 billion by 2020, including six billion mobile phones.

Consequently, the devices will be replaced by newer versions more rapidly. The environmentally and logically smart solution to replace the older devices is to reuse or to recycle. However, more than 95% of the used devices end up into landfills. This e-waste is mostly non-biodegradable, ie, it does not decompose naturally and is known for serious health and environmental problems due to the presence of toxic elements like mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium. Underground e-waste also accounts for 70% of toxic waste which seep into the environment, contaminating air, water and land.

To avoid landfill problems in developed countries, large amount of older devices is illegally exported to countries like Pakistan, India and many African countries. According to Greenpeace — a nongovernmental environmental organisation, inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47% of waste destined for export, including e-waste, as illegal. While some of these imported gadgets get life extension in ‘second-hand’ markets, the remaining e-junk is dismantled in inadequate working conditions to extract precious by-products.

On the contrary, e-recycling in developed countries takes place in purpose-built plants under controlled environments. In fact, some materials, like plastics (necessary element in mobile phones), are not even recycled in Europe to avoid toxic fumes. However, no such rules are followed in developing countries. Instead, recycling — the most eco-friendly and economical end-of-life solution — becomes a health and environmental concern due to negligence in handling toxic elements. Often, it seems like an act of dumping e-waste from developed half of the globe to the underdeveloped half.

Pakistan can tap this opportunity to turn 5G debris menace into a productive industry, satisfying global demand for much needed and depleting rare metals. However, this is only possible through the government support. The small scrapping industries in Karachi, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and Lahore mostly run their operations without regulations since there is no government policy related to e-waste. These industries provide nominal wages to its workers at the cost of severe health problems. For example, e-recycling units in Shershah area of Karachi alone feed more than 150,000 people, but it is known to have serious health and environmental problems caused due to toxic fumes.

If Pakistan is to reap benefits from the anticipated 5G-debris, strict regulations must ensure cleaner e-recycling to minimise the health risks, along with legalising imports of e-waste. Although we do not expect massive 5G deployment in Pakistan anytime soon, the inflow of second-hand gadgets will surely increase. Only a wise strategy to positively channel the 5G debris can boost the economy along with playing our part to protect the environment.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2018.

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