Comms Business talks to the Channel to find out how companies are responding to the growing issue of e-waste, with resellers and MSPs finding new opportunities within the circular economy.

Investing in new technologies is often an exciting time for organisations, but they are increasingly mindful of what will happen to devices that are no longer required or have reached the end of their lifecycle. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is one of the largest growing waste streams in the world, and channel companies are working with their partners to reuse, refurbish, recycle and dispose of devices.

Electronic products become waste for wide-ranging reasons but the European Environment Agency points to four core categories. These are: absolute obsolescence, where a product breaks or stops functioning; mechanical obsolescence, where a product no longer functions due to a lack of replacement components; incompatibility obsolescence, where the product no longer works properly due to lack of interoperability of software and/or hardware; and relative obsolescence, where a functional product is disused, and the device’s actual lifetime becomes less than the designed lifetime.

Relative obsolescence can be further split into three subcategories: aesthetic obsolescence, when a product is replaced because the desire for a new item is strong; economic obsolescence, when the old product is replaced as the cost of repair is higher than replacing; and technological obsolescence, whereby an old item is replaced as a new product offering better functionality is available.

Many companies across the channel are bringing e-waste management into their sustainability strategies, with partners and customers increasingly asking questions and looking for transparency.

Kelsey Hopkinson, vice president, ESG, Colt Technology Services, said, “E-waste is nasty stuff. It contains toxic, hazardous chemicals. It presents a huge problem to dispose of and to recycle, with contaminants potentially impacting the environment. And its volume is growing exponentially. It’s forecast to reach almost 75 metric tonnes by 2030 – that’s a 40 per cent increase on the 53.7 metric tonnes generated in 2019.”

Hopkinson emphasised why this issue is so important. She said, “As an industry we have an opportunity and a responsibility to drive down e-waste. We need to work collectively, set targets and hold ourselves – and each other – accountable.”

Robust initiatives

So, how can the Channel tackle e-waste? And what role should different stakeholders, whether a vendor, distributor, reseller, or MSP, play in solving this issue?

Deborah Johnson, head of ESG, Agilitas, explained, “Increased environmental pressures and government legislation is driving demand for Channel stakeholders to explore new ways they can reduce their carbon footprint and tackle e-waste. With the technology channel rightly placing sustainability near the top of its list of priorities, businesses are responding by automating roles, utilising electric vehicles for logistics and reducing electrical and electronic waste headed for landfills.”

Johnson highlighted Agilitas’ approach to reducing e-waste by focusing on the “repair, rework, reuse” model. She added, “Through the development and implementation of robust sustainability initiatives, vendors, disties, resellers and MSPs can play a leading role in helping to create a more circular economy and minimising e-waste.”

Elizabeth Harris, global coordinator, ESG, 8x8, said, “In a world that is increasingly conscious of the damaging impact we can have on the environment, businesses have a responsibility to make sure they can measure, monitor and reduce the waste created or caused by their operations. At 8x8 we believe good corporate citizenship and sustainable business practices go hand-in-hand.

“Vendors, disties, resellers, MSPs, anyone putting e-waste onto the market has a legal obligation to ensure that when electronic devices come to the end of life, they are managed appropriately. This includes understanding what accreditations their third party disposal provider has, for example, are they registered with the Environment Agency, do they comply with security requirements such as data erasure and where do the products end up?”

Harris emphasised the importance of evaluating all stages of a device’s lifecycle, as well as the individual devices within an overall solution. She said, “It is not only the downstream effects we should be monitoring but upstream too, this means analysing our procurement processes. There are companies out there designing electronic products to make certain consumers are unable to repair them, or can only do so through certified partners and others that are building products that don’t last. That can be a challenge when it comes to weighing up if we have to work with them.

Harris argued that, ultimately, channel companies should prioritise ethical profit. She said, “We need to find a balance. Yes, profit is important. It keeps us all in work, but we should be creating this profit ethically. At 8x8 we support a range of current market devices as well as legacy hardware. The customer is able to easily transition to our services should they wish to use their existing hardware from their old provider. It is not always essential to buy new.”

Building a strategy

When asked how a channel company should go about creating a strategy that responds to e-waste, Johnson, from Agilitas, said, “Developing a robust strategy is essential for channel businesses to bolster their net zero, carbon offsetting and sustainability goals. Businesses that aim to create a comprehensive e-waste strategy must align their initiatives with environmental regulations and industry standards while striving to minimise the impact of their company’s operations on the environment.

“In order to create a concise strategy, Channel companies must analyse their current operations – from sourcing components to end-of-life disposal in order to minimise waste generation at each stage.”

Johnson explained that channel operators must also consider measures to extend the life of hardware beyond the typical manufacturer lifespan, whilst ensuring the necessary quality standards and warranties are met.

She added, “By repairing, reworking and reusing IT hardware, organisations can also reduce their carbon footprint and that of customers, whilst reducing cost. Through timely monitoring, reporting, and continuous improvements, the IT channel can develop and integrate effective strategies to ensure e-waste regulations and best practices are met.”

Data is also an increasingly important building block when constructing an effective e-waste strategy. 8x8’s Harris discussed how data can help join the dots so a meaningful reduction in e-waste can be achieved.

Harris explained, “You can’t create a strategy without the right data. That starts with understanding the reason why, and buying in your stakeholders. For many, we have the luxury of not seeing the result of our waste but according to the World Health Organisation the impact on people and the planet is very real.

“A large proportion of e-waste ends up in the informal waste sector, usually in poorer countries without the governance to safely manage it. In 2019 only 17.4 per cent of e-waste produced reached formal management and recycling facilities, the rest was illegally disposed of.

“The next step in creating a strategy is to understand your own data, how much e-waste are you putting onto the market, where it is ending up and what are the risks? It is not always easy to measure waste but without this information we can’t begin to monitor and develop strategies to reduce. With stronger controls we are better able to efficiently use resources and reduce waste.”

Harris explained that data destruction adds complexity to the e-waste puzzle, but “responsible manufacturers are increasingly concerned about where their products end up and want to ensure that any distributors are managing this effectively”.

She added, “Where possible, donating to charity is a way to mitigate e-waste and is also a way of helping with using technology as part of social inclusion. We understand the value and importance technology can play. Our Corporate Social Responsibility strategy has a focus on digital inclusion, it is something our employees understand and can get behind, we see the potential in digital creativity in all of our futures. We also want the next generation of workers to come and help us innovate.

“This year we donated a number of devices to a social enterprise. Their mission is to bridge the digital divide by providing high-quality, pre-owned IT devices donated by European companies to educational, medical and social projects in developing and emerging countries at affordable rates. But they don’t stop there, when the devices are at the end of life they will collect and recycle, ensuring none of the products distributed end up in landfill.

Harris emphasised the reality that this is an issue with no easy answers, but it remains important to engage with the issue. She said, “The complexity of the supply chain makes it hard to comprehend the full life cycle of a product but it is important to investigate upstream and downstream. It is a business risk not to have full transparency. Visibility enables us to improve efficiency in operations and helps us to better manage our environmental impacts.”

Hopkinson, from Colt Technology Services, added, “E-waste management can be considered as part of a wider ESG strategy, but mustn’t be lost within it. Setting ambitious metrics but being transparent about progress is absolutely critical. [Those metrics should be] align[ed] with widely-recognised industry standards [that] provide consistency and the ability to benchmark, track and report progress.”

Technology upgrades

In recent years, the e-waste generated by technology upgrades has come under the microscope, with many organisations mindful of the environmental impact of adopting new technologies. Earlier this year, BT Group announced it would be extending its partnership with TXO to resell, recycle and reuse legacy equipment in a circular networks sustainability drive.

BT Group’s Exchange Clearance Operation (ECO) programme involves closing down ageing, inefficient networks. This allows the business to downsize the number of buildings it has and move its customers onto new, energy efficient, high-speed mobile and fibre networks. However, the company wants to ensure the programme reduces e-waste and the overall carbon footprint.

Under the new partnership, customers of TXO can access the vast portfolio of networking equipment platforms that it will be able to offer to the global refurbishment market on behalf of BT Group. Additionally, TXO’s approach to decommissioning BT Group’s legacy networks provides learning and insight for other network operators as they begin to tackle this sizeable task.

Peter Bell, managing director for fixed networks, BT, explained, “As we accelerate the closure of our legacy networks and downsize our estate, having a trusted partner that knows our company inside out and supports our commitment to sustainability is invaluable. The partnership is good for the environment and good for the sustainability of our business.

“It supports our commitment to address the rising e-waste challenge and support the circular economy while simultaneously extracting maximum value from the equipment removed, consolidating the footprint of our estate and reducing our energy consumption from redundant and less efficient infrastructure.”

Darren Pearce, Group CEO, TXO, added, “Decommissioning equipment on this scale, while ensuring reliable service continues, is a huge, multi-year process. This agreement will allow us to make further investments in the resources and skills required to meet the growing demand for BT Group’s decommissioning programmes across the UK and beyond.”

The whole chain

For many channel companies, the support of their vendors will be instrumental in building an effective e-waste strategy. Johnson, from Agilitas, said that consumers and businesses across the channel sector are waking up to the importance of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG). Johnson explained that supply chain transparency, sustainable finance and renewable energy sources and materials are all key to helping industries meet their net zero, carbon offsetting and sustainability goals.

Johnson discussed how vendors are supporting their partners, with some now incorporating e-waste initiatives in processes to help streamline operations and boost efficiency for channel partners.

She explained, “This not only enables significant environmental saving, but also an economical one for channel partners and their end user clients. By delivering white label maintenance, professional services’ solutions and inventory assurance services, channel vendors can enable partner organisations to benefit from cost-effective, multi-vendor hardware maintenance services.

“This mitigates the need to dispose of mass hardware, allowing partners to extend product life cycles and reduce their carbon footprints.”

Collaborating with partners across the channel will also be vital. Harris, from 8x8, commented, “Knowledge sharing is key to creating initiatives with partners. Opportunities to share best practices, regulatory updates and operational processes are hugely beneficial and working together to apply circular economy principles that benefit the whole supply chain. Reduce, reuse, recycle and recover.”

What is important is that all stakeholders take their responsibilities seriously and remain committed to those duties.

Hopkinson, from Colt Technology Services, said, “The real difference comes from long-term behavioural change; not just creating more emissions and paying to offset them, for example, but being unafraid to be the business that stands up and says: “We’re doing things differently. Who’s in?””

This feature appeared in our November 2023 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.