Mapping networks and critical materials to advance the circular economy

What materials do network infrastructures need to be able to operate? In what quantities? And what are the potential risks in terms of sourcing? Samuli Vaija, Life Cycle and Circular Economy Analyst at Orange, sheds light on the environmental impact of the new digital world and the path towards its resilience.

“We’re now thinking about how to introduce a material criticality index into our purchasing processes.”

What does your work entail with regard to the presence of rare metals in network and telecoms equipment?

Since 2007, Orange has been providing environmental labelling for mobile phones sold or leased to its customers. The aim was to transparently inform people about the environmental impact of our products, by explaining the efforts we undertake to limit that impact in terms of CO2 emissions, energy consumption and natural resources. By adopting that approach, we quickly realised the importance of some so-called rare metals that are essential to the proper functioning of our equipment but potentially problematic for our medium- to long-term sourcing, either because natural reserves are limited or because the geological concentration of their deposits poses a potential risk in the event of a geopolitical crisis or natural disaster. This drove us to seek to better understand the exposure of our business activities to these critical materials.

How did you do this?

Very empirically, first, by dismantling the devices to weigh the different materials that they contain. Therefore, in 2012, we began carrying out an initial mapping of all the metals contained in our customers’ equipment, together with an assessment of the criticality of those metals to our business activities. To that end, we had to develop our own database — the resources available at the time were often poorly suited to our needs, because, for example, they used data that was too old to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, or were constrained by narrow criteria. For instance, most databases tracked carbon footprints but did little to monitor the depletion of natural resources. In around 2014/2015, we went a step further by expanding this mapping to the large families of components making up our network equipment, rather than just our customers’ devices. In addition to the specification sheets produced by the manufacturers, we also use various methods to classify critical materials, as proposed by specialised agencies such as the French Strategic Metals Committee (COMES) or the United States Geological Survey (USGS). That enables us to gauge which industries consume which materials and derive a list of those that are critical to our own activities.

How do you work with the telecoms ecosystem on this matter?

Of course, we work in partnership with several manufacturers within the industry, some of which are very much on the cutting edge, others far less so. At the level of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), we carry out tasks on a regular basis, in particular in the field of the circular economy — we now have more than a decade of experience in analysing the life cycle and assessing the environmental impact of equipment. We also take part in collaborative research projects with stakeholders from other industries, for example within the EcoSD Network. In that context, it is worth mentioning the recent publication of an article on the evaluation of resource depletion in life cycle analysis, co-authored with IRSTEA (Institut national de recherche en sciences et technologies pour l’environnement et l’agriculture — the French national research institute of science and technology for environment and agriculture) and PSA (see additional information).

What are the specific challenges behind this work?

The short-term goal is primarily to develop our knowledge so that we can refine our life cycle analyses. Beyond that, of course, that knowledge can help us purchase better equipment for our business activities. When it comes to sourcing network equipment, Orange’s specifications have recently adopted two important indices: one concerning carbon footprint and the other on circular economy. This was first developed through in-house testing ahead of being brought before the ITU. This second step resulted in the implementation of an index called Circularity Score, which assesses the equipment’s ability to be recycled, refurbished or upgraded, and even its critical material make-up. Although negotiations with manufacturing partners in the standardisation committee were sometimes tough, we reached a consensus on a comprehensive method, which has been available since the end of November 2020. In the longer term, this work and index are also intended to influence our innovation cycles, improve our eco-design capabilities and facilitate the implementation of our circular economy principles. It is still very difficult to recycle or substitute some critical metals, but our approach helps to enlighten and challenge equipment manufacturers on this issue.

To find out more: L’importance des métaux rares pour le secteur des technologies de l’information et de la communication, le cas d’Orange, in Les Annales des Mines, n°99, juillet 2020 (disponible en français et en anglais)

A framework for good practices to assess abiotic mineral resource depletion in Life Cycle Assessment”, in Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 279, Janvier 2021 (disponible en anglais uniquement)

Assessment method for circular scoring”, in recommendation UIT-T L.1023, novembre 2020 (disponible en anglais uniquement)

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