interconnected world, 5G

Editor’s note: Verizon sponsored this posting, asking Earth911 for a review of the sustainability impacts of 5G network technology that will be introduced to consumers and business this year. This article contains links to other websites. Earth911 is not responsible for the privacy policies of those other websites. When you click on a link, your information may be collected by those websites. Please read their privacy policies.

Sustainability is a problem of progress. As new technologies pile up, consuming resources and delivering benefits of often questionable value, we consume more resources and the Earth is taxed, sometimes to death. But technology has already reduced waste substantially and new faster wireless networks built on 5G promise to deliver greater efficiency, as well as support new approaches to recycling, logistics, circular economy business models, and the immediacy of experience shared around the globe.

5G, the next generation of wireless data network, provides speeds as high as 20-times today’s typical broadband networks. Because it is fast enough to respond to human activity in real-time, new forms of services, from remote monitoring of water use on farms to brain surgery conducted over thousands of miles, 5G represents an opportunity to rethink the organization of society to support sustainable approaches to human life.

Our challenge, as citizens, shoppers, and workers — including business owners, whose control of economic decisions has been amplified by fixed industrial technology — is to understand all the new components of technology and its social and environmental consequences. This writer has covered wireless technology since before new technologies were referred to as the Next G, or generation. 5G delivers a ubiquitous broadband network that can revolutionize the economy, bringing a circular vision of materials extracted from nature once to be reused as nutrients of future generations of products.

Here are four sustainability opportunities we see emerging with 5G technology:

Logistics Everywhere

It is difficult to keep in mind how much more information is available today than only 30 years ago. Humans can measure much of the world in detail, but analyzing all that data has remained a growing challenge. 5G’s 1 GBps+ bandwidth can transfer data from sensors to computer-assisted experts who will turn it into insights that can be used to improve the management of food, products, and waste.

Traditional ways of thinking about networks emphasize delivery of data rather than collection. But with the rise of the internet, people became more than recipients of broadcasts, they started sending their own information into the network. Connectivity has raised many privacy issues, but also delivered tools for improving life, preserving the environment, making better choices at the store, as well as our fitness and diets. Apps now interpret personal data to help keep us active, to track our caloric intake and burn rates. It may sound trivial, but it is what was possible with trickles of data.

5G will turn data sharing into an even greater torrent than today. With the rise of quantum computing, which will make quick work of analysis of massive amounts of information, 5G can be the link that turns data collection into action quickly. That will change our approach to anticipating demand and the relationship of customers values to business. Logistics systems such as Amazon, which currently fill our homes with boxes and wasted packaging, could become circular, with automated approaches to capturing waste and recycling or reusing it efficiently.

Circular local supply chains represent true progress toward a zero-carbon economy.

Work Without the Workplace

Back in the early days of cellular telephones, I happened to spend the afternoon with Craig McCaw, a founder of the wireless phone business. We were sitting with his executive team when McCaw pointed to the CEO and said that he did his best thinking when he was fishing; with a cell phone, he only needed to make a call to get that thinking.

But McCaw also pointed out the window at the city park below the office. “The guy cleaning the park will be able to take a call when his wife goes into labor and be with her for the birth, he said.” That vision has arrived, and more. The pace of growth in broadband capacity has changed the way people work repeatedly. Office sharing has replaced dedicated office space for many workers, and many corporations now provide remote work options for employees.

With 5G, work will be possible almost everywhere the network reaches. The technology supports up to one million connections within a kilometer, with high-speed transfer capability so that even a moving train, airplane, or drone can stay connected. All those connections represent places where humans will provide control and judgment, doing the work of our times.

Supply Chain Transparency and Accountability

All those new connections, including the ones we put in our homes, will provide new transparency in the economy, if we demand that insight into how the businesses operate. With millions of connections, including to individual packages and packaging used in consumer products, our mobile phones will have the ability to interrogate a product before buying to establish that it meets our environmental and social responsibility standards.

Imagine being able to see into the history of a product to see if it contains dangerous or unrecyclable ingredients or packaging. 5G can make that a reality, if we value transparency.

The World Bank is working to create databases and systems for establishing the provenance of a product, the basis for ecological accountability and, most importantly, transparency when deciding what to buy. 5G is essential to environmental accountability becoming a convenient and fast step in the buying process. Imagine being able to visit Amazon, Walmart, or a local shop with the ability to screen out all carbon-contributing or socially irresponsible products from your shopping list. We can manage CO2 emissions, sending feedback from customers to make clear that unsustainable products and practices will not be tolerated.

With transparency, people can take greater control of the economy.

Smart Packaging and Infrastructure

The recycling system depends on a fixed collection process and the success of consumers in separating their recyclable materials from true waste. However, we know that many materials can be profitably recycled if the cost of collection is kept low. 5G can support smart packaging that talks back to the producer to help streamline collection.

How? For example, a blue bin or even a wastebasket can be equipped with sensors that track the weight of collected material as well as what kind of materials are in the container. With that kind of insight at the “edge of the network,” where technology has exploded since 1990, it is possible to build collection routing for recycling pickups and route each material to the specialized recyclers.

A smart infrastructure in the city and rural communities, which can be connected at high speed to the 5G network efficiently, will create new combinations of services that create economic opportunity throughout the supply chain. Indeed, individuals with specialized knowledge ranging from how to compost to repair a broken mobile phone can be connected to customers more efficiently. This is not the old claim that the internet will let a fine guitar maker sell a guitar to everyone in the world, but a chance to connect local workers to solve significant problems.

Sustainability and progress will evolve together. 5G’s ability to connect billions of sensors and devices will give humanity new insights into the complex modern problems we face. 5G on its own is a tool, but combined with human creativity it is a potential silver bullet for sustainability challenges.

What Can You Do?

We encourage readers and companies to check out Verizon’s 5G Labs, where participants can receive up to $1 million in support for 5G-based solutions to major business, environmental, and social challenges. 5G phones will start to hit the market in the first half of this year.


By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.