Nowadays the telecommunications industry plays an important role in nature preservation and in creating a world more resilient to change. The pandemic and remote working which has taken hold have led to unprecedented demand for digital communications, forcing industry to consume more energy than ever and, hence, generate more carbon emissions. We are talking to Galina Parmenter, Senior ESG Advisor to Yettel, about the place of digital communications in the sustainable economy and where according to Yettel the business of the future – the one in balance with the environment and people – is heading.
Mrs. Parmenter, how do you see the role of the telecommunications sector in promoting sustainable business development and social policies?
As a leader in the telecommunications industry, the promotion of responsible consumption has always been in Yettel’s focus of attention, and the reason is the very nature of the business we operate in. It may come as no surprise that 3-4% of global CO2 emissions are precisely due to the telecommunications industry (Boston Consulting Group Study in Telco Industry), which is nearly twice as much as aviation. Global data traffic is expected to grow by around 60% annually on a global scale, leading to increased energy consumption. Unless this energy comes from clean sources, greenhouse gas pollution will increase, rather than decrease.
Yettel’s commitment to sustainable development is in the company’s DNA. For years we have been developing various programs and initiatives – for Internet safety, environment, workplace diversity, etc., which not only show the way, but also set a good example. Every business should operate in balance with the environment and people, and we are still one of the few companies in Bulgaria that are building a sustainability strategy with precise and measurable targets to be announced later this year. We are developing ambitions in the areas of climate, circular economy (electronic waste and packaging waste), people and diversity; customer engagement and innovation.
As one of the major telecoms in Bulgaria, what challenges and sustainable business development opportunities do you come across?
The two main challenges in our industry are the increasing energy consumption for powering the digital services we are providing and electronic waste pollution. Let me tell you a bit more about the latter.
Recently we have been witnessing exponential growth in the number of electrical and electronic devices manufactured, sold and respectively become waste, both in Bulgaria and worldwide. If we take a pragmatic look, when a new device is bought, it largely replaces an old one. And the question is what happens to old devices – logically, obsolete equipment is also increasing in number. Speaking with facts, in 2019, the so-called e-waste was 53,6 million tons worldwide, equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships. By 2021, the same annual e-waste has already increased by around 7%, i.e. the ships have already become 375. Small devices, such as phones and laptops, currently occupy about 9% of the world’s e-waste. Unfortunately, around 82% of this waste ends up in landfill, which is the result of consumer action and the lack of recycling programs. According to Eurostat data, Bulgarians have generated 82 kilotons e-waste, or 11,7 kg per capita, in 2019.
Globally, only 17,4% of devices are correctly disposed of (and subsequently recycled) at the end of their life. These devices are composed of several precious metals and the indiscriminate disposal of untreated waste causes damage to the environment and adversely affects human health, particularly on the basis of toxins entering soil and water.
Despite the grim statistics, it is encouraging that the European Union Europe is the place with the highest percentage of devices correctly handed in – an estimated 48,5% in 2021 – and Bulgaria has an even higher share of 75%. Collecting used devices, using their components, and properly recycling these products not only contributes to the protection of the environment from pollution, but also is a way of recovering precious natural resources which can be re-used for new devices. And we, at Yettel, want to be the leaders in this initiative.
As a society and a country, we need to motivate behavior to promote the so-called circular economy (produce, use, recycle, and/or reuse leading to zero waste). Unfortunately, the linear economy is prevailing now – we produce, use and throw away, without thinking what is happening with this waste.
Tell us more about Yettel’s campaign for recycling devices and making them a part of the circular economy.
The topic of sustainable development is becoming more and more popular in Bulgaria, and I dare to say this is not only true for Yettel’s employees, but also the vast majority of our customers. I am sure that in the last few months, every reader has come across news or other information on this topic in the public domain. However, our Yettel team’s shared opinion is that what is missing at the moment are precise, clear and easy steps that every individual can take to contribute to the achievement of more sustainable living.
In order to reach out to more consumers, as of June this year, we started investing in the revamp of our new Recycle and Save Service which will stimulate the responsible disposal of mobile devices and accessories. It has been in place since 2018. We have allowed ourselves to be decisive and bold, by encouraging the people, both customers and non-customers to Yettel, to bring their old devices, in return for which they receive a discount voucher. We are committed to handing in the mobile devices, tablets and smart accessories collected for recycling so that, instead of gathering dust in the cabinet, they can be of use in the production of new electronics, save valuable natural resources and hence contribute to reducing their environmental footprint (see chart). This is a practical solution Yettel is offering to everyone in Bulgaria, together with whom we are consciously addressing common environmental concerns. It is important to note that the campaign is not a one-off act, and people can join in the coming months as well.
But data speaks better than people, and since the campaign is not over yet, I can share some figures for last year. In 2021, we collected almost double quantities of devices and accessories compared to those that we managed to collect in 2020. Hence, we helped more than 2130 consumer devices or their parts to be recycled or live a second life . Together with the people who brought their devices to our shops, we saved emissions, equivalent to 9,42 million smartphone charges. The achievement is comparable to the effect of planting 1281 trees and their growth over 10 years. Nevertheless, despite the positive trend, we are very far from the point at which, with each new purchase, we would get an old device, which we would manage to recycle or re-use.
What are your next steps?
We, at Yettel, believe in balance and in the transformation of human life for the better via technology. As one of the largest investors, employers and telecommunication service providers, our aim is to balance the connection that consumers have with technology. To this end, we are putting in place sustainable policies, measures and objectives, through which we want to change the world by reducing our carbon footprint and focusing on people’s health and well-being.
People need easy steps for a more sustainable way of life that they can apply on a daily basis. We are currently also working on our long-term strategy, which will include more awareness-raising initiatives. We have already introduced a paperless contract signing process as part of our effort to generate less waste and reduce paper consumption. We already implement the principles of circular economy (reduce, reuse, recycle) quite well in our offices – we dispose of waste separately, recycle and strive to use products over a longer period of time. We plan to increase the use of renewable energy both for our headquarters and for our retail shops.
Of course, we can always do more, and that is why we do not consider sustainability to be just a few projects that start and end, but rather as the way to do business. I believe that Bulgaria has great potential to develop relatively quickly in this direction, because sustainable development is precisely that – to be in balance with nature and the people around us.