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What happens when the demand for digital devices becomes so rampant that they outnumber human beings? This is the reality we now face as the planet drowns in the cast-offs of society’s unchecked digital consumption. “We live on a planet that follows natural cycles and we have been consuming resources beyond natural boundaries, beyond the regenerative capabilities of nature,” warns APC’s Guide to the circular economy of digital devices.

In this third part of our special series on Our Circular Future, Syed Kazi of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) in India talks to us about how one of the highest-consuming regions of the world needs to urgently adopt circular economy approaches across all sectors.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

In your case study, you discussed the urgency of transitioning to a circular economy in South Asia and particularly in India. What has changed since then, are there any improved conditions or have things worsened?

I think that digital consumption has increased manifold. A lot of new devices have been added into markets and societies, more than before. The rate of purchases became higher because of COVID. I think COVID has pushed us, in a behavioral sense, since the need for devices is a new thing for the majority of people. Given a choice they wouldn't want a secondhand device, they will go for a firsthand device, which for them means “happiness”, the excitement of getting a new device. This means that we are adding more devices to this planet and especially in India.

At the same time, India is now the second largest refurbishment market of digital devices. To connect this point to the over-population of India and the density of the population – on the one hand the refurbishment market means there's certainly a demand from buyers, but at the same time the bias for new devices is equally strong. When you pull up the data you see a lot of people like having new devices in their hands now. So there is a dual wave of accelerated adoption of digital devices from refurbishment to new devices, which is only adding to the digital divide.

My second observation is that pressure is building on us because I remember that in 2021, India brought out the first draft policy on the circular economy of digital devices, electronics and electrical waste. That document was brought out when COVID was still at a mid-level of uncertainty and anxiety, with all the economic stresses and need for devices. In that period the government put out that circular economy policy document and we all contributed immensely in making that draft into a final document. So far we haven't heard anything from the government, but we are pushing for it. I feel that the density of digital devices is putting pressure on us. Certainly without any delay the country needs to mainstream and formalise the circular economy as soon as possible.

If you were to do a follow-up study today, are there different angles that you would explore in the work that you've done?

Where I'm sitting now, with all the daily observations, critical thinking and experiences that we have, we feel that we certainly must accelerate the need to sensitise civil society at large of how much pressure we are under in India and in South Asia, because South Asia is the largest population in the world. We are accelerating our own problems and challenges with unrestricted usage of technology devices and the massive e-waste that we are sitting upon every day. The kind of uncompromising situation we are creating is going to mean having more devices than human beings in the country. That is the exploding situation we are in.

Man works on electronic repairs among giant stacks of components.
Image: Repairs being undertaken amid stacks of used components. Photo courtesy of DEF.

The gravity of this humongous challenge is not being recognised at the policy and government level because we still do not see it as a priority. We brought out the policy document, we engaged stakeholders, we invited everyone to comment and help the government to prepare the document – everyone did their job. But now 2021 has been left behind and we are going to be in 2024 soon, so I think recognising the magnitude and seriousness of the challenge is one thing that we should work on, all of us, on all levels – civil society, organisations, government and private sector. That has to come without any delay.

Second is that we need processes of adopting circular approaches to be started without any delay in schools, institutions and government. The government is a massive consumer of digital devices, and if it starts following circular principles, if not all of them then at least one or two, I think half of the problem could be solved. The government is the biggest consumer in this electronic-digital space. So I think the next important way of looking at it is prioritising circular economy approaches across private, government, civil society sectors – adopting certain principles of circular economy even without waiting for the government to come out and say, “Hey, look, this is something that is a time bomb now, we cannot wait, we need to have this now.”

We have to look at the economy, environmental climate challenge, energy consumption and the energy deficits that we are facing. Those are the kinds of interlinkages that need to be communicated immediately to all stakeholders without waiting for the government. The circular economy can no longer be a choice, I feel; it’s a necessity now. We really need to have a very simple lifestyle and responsible living consumption. One of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) even talks about responsive sustainable production and consumption, so that SDG needs to be very well integrated into this circular process and the technology space.

Given the urgency of the situation and the lessons learned, what advice would you give to people who are looking to start engaging in advocacy work around ICTs and the circular economy?

We are trying to engage smaller civil society organisations who haven’t worked in this space of digital and environmental justice and get those who are working at the community level to improve their understanding and perspective around why and how the circular economy of digital devices is important for each one of us. That is number one.

Second is initiating some practices around repair culture, and using repair culture at the community level. For example, DEF has started five repair centres, or repair cafés, at the community level. In a circular economy there are maybe 10 to 15 steps to getting the whole 360° circle of economic processes at a community level, but we can start with one or two basic levels such as information dissemination, knowledge building, consciousness building and awareness building in the community. Before introducing the concept of circular economy you can start with the concept of reuse and repair, because those are the first initial steps of this economy. People may not understand the circular economy as such at first because they are not used to this kind of concept or understand what is linear and circular, but at least they will understand what is repair and reuse.

Participants of a repair café organised by DEF.
Image: Participants at a repair café organised by DEF. Photo courtesy of DEF.

The third thing is populating content and resources in digital formats and making them available at the community level. This means involving educational institutions because the younger generations are the most active users and consumers of digital devices and I think they have bright minds and are more receptive.

As of today, we don't see enough content and resources around reuse and repair, its interlinkages with technology, the environment and the kinds of injustices and humongous problems that I mentioned. I think schools and colleges have stopped teaching students about civic education, which is about civic responsibility and understanding issues and problems. We need to look at civic education, and in this case technology-based civic education, in terms of how to responsibly use a device, consumption, environmental upstream/downstream, challenges of reckless or unrestricted use of devices and technology, and the environmental impact this is having on the extraction of minerals.

This sensitisation is completely missing. If we are living in a digital society, I think this digital civic education has to be centered around responsible digital consumption and behaviour, which has connections to economy, environment and sustainability. Content can play a very effective role and we need to build localised content in languages that people can understand. As a first step what DEF is doing now is translating the original APC guide into the Hindi language.

Taking into account the steps that still need to be made in terms of sensitisation to increase the visibility of the circular economy, how do you see the future of circular economies unfolding when you look ahead?

Every one or two years we have these global climate intergovernmental dialogues like COP27. The World Economic Forum has already talked about the circular economy. If they are not talking or writing about the circular economy as a priority for mitigating environmental climate change, I think that’s a double standard. The whole world is dependent on digital technology today, in terms of economy, in terms of everything. So how can we then not look at the grey area of the environmental climate impact of technologies?

In parallel this is also leading to a challenge – should we wait another 10-15 years to look at things? No, we need to look now at this whole mountain of garbage, of e-waste and illegal processes and extraction. We can't wait because at that point it will be too late. Going forward, I think that there's no choice for the global community and global forums and their member countries, for everyone – each one of us – not to look at the circular economy in world processes because ultimately it all connects to our lifecycles.

Our Circular Future series

Further reading: APC's Guide to the circular economy of digital devices describes the concepts and processes of circularity and summarises the key challenges and opportunities, including for policy advocacy.


Maja Romano works with APC's communications team and coordinates the publication of the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) report. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist and writer with a passion for community engagement, social justice and digital rights, which she uses as a lens to inform her writing and activism.