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BT is establishing a circular economy through router recycling

Since 2020, BT has operated a router recycling and return scheme for its customers. The scheme aims to keep old routers in a circular economy – while also having major financial benefits for the telecommunications company. 

Router recycling for the circular economyBT has two major sustainability targets which it set in 2021: be circular by 2030 and be part of a wider entirely circular tech ecosystem by 2040.

It’s focusing on two priorities to help it reach these larger targets: zero waste to landfill in operations by 2030, and increasing the take-back of all consumer-premise equipment to 75 per cent for routers and sector boxes by the 2026 financial year. Its router recycling scheme is a key step. 

The scheme was announced in December 2019 and gives customers 60 days to return their loaned equipment or face – at minimum – a £43 fine. The process is free and is facilitated by BT who provides a returns kit. 

Head of Circular Economy at BT, Matt Manning, told Resource: “We’re trying to move away from the historical model where customers receive their kit, used it, and then no one actually asked for it back.

“Now, if you don’t send your kit back to us, you get a penalty. This has encouraged more equipment to come back which we can then reuse. It both saves money versus buying new and has a lower footprint.”

Based on BT’s rough calculations for 2022, the footprint of its router supply chain was reduced by 40 per cent through the scheme – as well as providing financial savings in the multimillions.

In that year, BT collected 1.8 million router packages and about 83 per cent were reused after being sent for refurbishment in Scotland. The rest were sent to an ATF to be recycled due to not meeting validation criteria or being older models that are no longer in use by BT.

Working towards the circular economy means examining every step of the supply chain – from manufacturing to waste disposal to the consumer – to make the scheme work. Manning says that, in his experience, one of the biggest issues in tackling e-waste lies with the consumer and individual apathy towards the problem. He credits organisations like Recycle Your Electricals for the campaign work being done on e-waste and changing behaviour patterns.

In response to this problem, BT’s consumer communications are focused on updating the customer journey – drilling home that the lifespan of your product does not end in a dusty drawer but rather when the item is returned to the company.

“The messaging that goes out with the router return kit is along the lines of ‘last year, customers that sent back their routers helped avoid 330 tonnes of e-waste – the equivalent of 27 London buses,” he explains.

“But I think for the vast swathes of people, they're just happy that they didn’t have to deal with the waste.”

Router recycling and the circular economy

Schemes like router recycling go hand-in-hand with a transition to a circular economy and achieving net zero but, once again, it is important to look at all steps of the supply chain.

BT is working with manufacturers to increase the recycled content going into its routers to decrease its carbon footprint. Manning says he is looking at implementing design guidelines that enforce circular principles for BT’s own-brand products. However, none of these ideas seem to have embedded targets as of yet and 2030 – as a deadline to achieve circularity – is not far off.

Additionally, there is the issue of surplus stock – when a BT team in Scotland, for example, or another global operator has over-procured a product like a router, is it possible to have a secondary market where this can be recirculated? This is something Manning says he is exploring with the network team.

To increase the rate of reuse, the company is also looking at ‘reskinning’ older models so they can be used by one of the other brands under the BT umbrella. In the tech world, products evolve fast and older models are often left behind while still being perfectly useable. Reskinning older but functional BT routers for entry-level brands such as Plusnet may be a solution to the waste that results from this evolution. Manning points out that most of the BT stock is still produced in East Asia and surrounding areas, so he stresses that they want to try to avoid the production of new stock where older stock may still be useable. Once again, it’s about looking at the whole supply chain.

“The circular economy is resilience. So, it’s about building a resilient supply chain,” Manning explains. “There are also commercial opportunities in there as well, particularly in the consumer segment. Think about consumers who would rather go for a cheaper refurbished phone rather than a new model.”

Commercialisation and the circular economy

The need to balance economic incentives with steps towards the circular economy is very clear to Manning. He is always quick to emphasise the importance of both the financial and environmental payoff of any decision. He reflects: “Commercially, people still want to talk about money, but it stacks up for us in sustainability that the CO2 reductions are there too.”

It’s not a surprising agenda for a company whose 2022 revenue sat somewhere around 20 billion pounds – nor can they be singled out for this approach. However, the challenge for someone in Manning’s position is making both the money and the circular economy benefits talk. The router recycling scheme seems to be a good start, but there is still a long way to go ahead of the 2030 deadline.

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