Why circularity is needed to make our use of digital devices sustainable

By APCNews

The first modules of a step-by-step guide that explains the negative impact of digital devices on both people and the planet and how a circular approach to the production, use and disposal of digital devices offers a solution will be launched on 4 October. The guide consists of 13 modules developed collaboratively with APC members and partners. It is illustrated through several case studies that explore the benefits and challenges of circularity in different contexts across the global South. 

Digital devices, such as mobile phones, are now an everyday part of many people’s lives. But most people know very little about what goes into making digital devices, and the environmental and human costs of the devices they use for work, socialising and play. 

Behind each digital device lies a complex chain of supply and demand that spans from the extraction of raw materials to the final disposal of the devices. This chain is often inefficient in terms of its use of natural resources and energy, is unsustainably hungry for scarce minerals that need to be used in electronics, and has a negative impact on the rights of many peoples and communities, whether in artisanal mining, on the factory floor, or in the unregulated processing of discarded devices. 

With the number of digital devices in circulation increasing exponentially – and more so since the COVID-19 pandemic – there is an urgent and pressing need for more sustainable methods of producing and recycling the digital devices that have now become essential to modern life. While e-waste has already become the largest waste stream in many countries, and the dumping of unusable electronics in developing countries continues, it is anticipated that in under 10 years, the information and communications technology (ICT) devices we use every day will account for more than half of the global electricity demand, and up to 23% of the globally released greenhouse gas emissions. With climate predictions becoming more dire, the need to adopt a sustainable approach to digital technologies has never been more clear.

In line with APC’s strategic priorities of promoting models and systems that are environmentally and socially sustainable, we have developed a guide to a circular model for digital devices.

As the guide puts it, the purpose of a circular economy approach to digital technologies is to “design out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and [to regenerate] natural systems.” The guide also emphasises the human cost of the current linear approach to the production, use and disposal of digital devices, whether in the artisanal mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the factory floors of a chip manufacturer in Mexico, or in the e-waste dumps in New Delhi where informal workers scavenge in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. 

Through the information laid out in this guide, readers – be they policy makers or activists – will gain a step-by-step understanding of the socioeconomic and environmental impacts that digital devices have on the planet, and of a more sustainable circular and human rights-based approach to the design, deployment and use of digital devices.

The objective of the guide is to raise awareness of the impact that these everyday technologies are having on our planet and people, and demonstrate through real-life examples that a circular approach is a viable and preferable alternative. To achieve this, it presents 13 modules that take the reader systematically through the different phases of the life cycle of a digital device, explain the challenges with the current linear approach to the production, use and disposal of digital devices, and suggest how a circular approach could remedy many of these challenges. The modules are illustrated through a series of case studies from around the world that exemplify best practices, as well as articulate the challenges in contributing to the circular economy in different contexts. 

The guide was developed collaboratively by a working group of APC members, partners and staff from all over the world. 

For Patience Luyeye Nsansi, one of the contributors to the guide, the publication is important because “many are still unaware of the impact that e-waste has on our ecosystem; they do not know how to deal with the problem it creates. The guide will help people see the level of responsibility that manufacturers of electrical and electronic equipment as well as mining companies that extract raw materials have in this issue.” 

Syed Kazi, another contributor to the guide, hopes that it will “positively impact the stakeholders in the nascent digital circular economy ecosystem in India, one of the world’s largest consumers of digital devices and amongst the highest producers of e-waste. It will serve as a reference and knowledge tool to deliberate, plan and take actions. It will support the Digital Empowerment Foundation, an APC member organisation, immensely as it advocates for a circular economy in the digital space in line with the government’s recent priorities.”

A guide to the circular economy of digital devices is set to launch on 4 October, and contains 13 modules, which will be released in a series of “batches” over the course of eight weeks. Each module will contain information about different stages in the life cycle of a digital device and offer insight into the possibilities for circularity. Little known facts, statistics and real-world examples will illustrate the guide’s core message throughout: that a circular economy may be difficult to achieve, but that it is an environmental and human rights necessity and should be a priority among both civil society activists and policy makers. 

The topics of each module and their launch dates: 

 

4 October 2021

 

14 October (which is also International E-Waste Day) 

 

25 October  

 

8 November  

  • Module 8: Extending the useful life of a device

  • Module 9: The value and cost of e-waste

 

15 November  

  • Module 10: An introduction to environmental rights as an advocacy framework

 

22 November 

  • Module 11: Challenges and ways for policy and action: Awareness, mining, design, manufacturing and procurement 

  • Module 12: Challenges and ways for policy and action: Use, reuse and e-waste 

 

(Date to be announced) 

  • Module 13: Circular practices: Making practical choices 

 

The guide is being released following the publication of the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2020 report, which was launched earlier in 2021 and explores many of the same topics on environmental sustainability, digital rights and circularity. GISWatch’s country, regional and thematic reports offer a critical lens on digital economies and how they relate to the goals of sustainable development, with case studies from countries across the global South. Both the guide and GISWatch 2020 aim to contribute to the goal of mobilising collective action for environmental justice and sustainability that APC and its partners promote.

A preview of this guide was launched in November 2020.



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