Achieving circular economy agenda


…a review of importance of behavioral change communication in electronic products

By Ebenezer Fosu ADDO (Ing)

E-waste, or electronic waste, refers to discarded electronic/electrical appliances such as mobile phones, televisions, and laptops. This major waste stream has expanded due to the consumer electronics boom over recent decades. The rapid pace of technological innovation leads to shorter product lifespans, posing significant challenges at every stage of an electronic product’s lifecycle, from raw material use to production and waste management.

In recent years, a surge in waste generation has raised environmental and public health concerns, with an estimated annual increase of 2 million metric tonnes. For instance, in 2021 and 2022, 57.4 million metric tonnes (MT) and 59.4 MT of electronic waste were generated, respectively. These electronic and electrical equipment contain valuable, yet often untapped, minerals.

Only about 17percent of such waste is recycled formally, with the remaining 83percent representing over US$47 billion in lost value from recoverable materials, as reported by the United Nations. These devices also contain toxic substances that can have harmful effects, including on pregnant women, potentially leading to stillbirth and premature birth. Respiratory and skin diseases are commonly associated with exposure to these toxins.

To address this issue, a shift from the traditional linear economy model of ‘take, make, dispose’ to the circular economy is being encouraged. The circular economy, which focuses on reducing waste, reusing products, and recycling materials, lessens dependency on natural resources and enables the recovery of valuable resources like gold, silver, copper, cobalt, and palladium. The success of this approach heavily relies on effective communication and education, bridging the gap between producers and consumers.

Transitioning to a circular economy requires significant changes in consumer behaviour, including green purchasing habits, adaptation to new business models, and acceptance of product upgrades involving repair and remanufacturing. This transition involves addressing not only external factors like infrastructure but also intrinsic factors such as values and personal norms.

While conventional approaches include information campaigns, economic incentives, and stricter regulations, integrating behavioural insights into these initiatives remains relatively unexplored. Literature suggests that, despite their imperfections, behavioural theories and intervention tools can effectively address social and psychological factors, promoting pro-environmental practices.


The market economy thrives on continuous technological changes, predominantly driven by the competition among companies. This competition spurs efforts to produce goods more cost-effectively through innovative technologies and to develop distinctive products to capture customer attention. Sustainability, a crucial goal of the global economy, extends beyond just sustainable production measures.

It’s a dual concept involving both sustainable production and consumption. While sustainable production focuses on cleaner, greener company practices, sustainable consumption addresses the environmental impact of consumer behaviors. Technological advancements in business are often driven by sales motives rather than environmental concerns. These advancements may reduce pollution but do not necessarily decrease overall consumption, as people often purchase newer, more innovative goods. Therefore, achieving sustainability requires a balanced approach to both production and consumption.

Paul Hawken emphasizes the transformation of consumers into informed customers through education. This shift involves changing consumer attitudes towards producers and establishing communication that fosters sustainability in both business and daily life. Consumers need information to understand production processes and environmental impacts.

Feedback from educated customers enables companies to align their products with environmental and economic goals. In the context of electronic products, specific sustainable production measures could include designing for longevity, recyclability, and energy efficiency. This approach, combined with an informed consumer base, can contribute to sustainable consumption of Electronic Equipment (EE) and effective e-waste management, creating a closed-loop system that embodies the essence of sustainability.

Consumer as an EE customer (user) and consumer as an e-waste holder (disposer)

The use phase in the life cycle of electronic products serves as a pivotal junction, connecting producers and recyclers. This phase is crucial in tackling the e-waste problem. Addressing e-waste effectively requires a focus beyond just disposal practices; it necessitates considering the consumption patterns of electronic equipment (EE). The surge in EE consumption leads to an accumulation of obsolete electronics, a significant portion of which remains operational.

Illustratively, a lifespan analysis reveals stark projections: a person born in 2003 is expected to generate 3.3 tons of Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) by the year 2059. This figure dramatically increases to 8 tons by 2080, highlighting a substantial environmental impact.

Such insights into individual contributions to WEEE can be a powerful tool in raising consumer awareness. Educating consumers about their role in the lifecycle of electronic products is essential. It’s not only about confronting the motivations behind purchasing decisions but also about emphasizing the need for efficient, environmentally friendly recycling and reuse systems. These efforts collectively form a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the growing e-waste crisis.

Empowerment of consumers’ to be pro-environmental

Empowering consumers in the e-waste management system involves enhancing their understanding and actions regarding electronic waste. It is essential for consumers to realize that e-waste can be a valuable resource. By educating them about the potential of e-waste recycling, their attitude towards electronic waste can shift from seeing it as mere trash to recognizing it as a resource. This change in perspective can lead to more responsible disposal practices, driven by various motivations like health, financial incentives, or environmental concerns.

From a psychological standpoint, individual behavior change is often more effective when global issues like e-waste are presented in a relatable, personal context. Education and clear information are key tools in making people aware of the importance of segregating e-waste from regular waste. This journey from unawareness to habitual, responsible behavior aligns with the 4 E’s framework (enable, encourage, engage, exemplify), providing a comprehensive model for influencing environmental behavior.

A specific example of consumer empowerment is the Lithuanian E-waste Law, which requires distributors to inform end-users about the proper disposal of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Additionally, the law mandates producers to educate users about the hazardous materials in electronics and their environmental and health impacts.

However, there’s a notable gap in initiatives from producers to actively promote the proper disposal of end-of-life electronics. While collection rates are a concern, there is a need for greater emphasis on prevention and consumer education. As consumers become more informed about the environmental impact of their choices, including the carbon footprint of waste and the potential for material recycling, they are more likely to take responsibility for their actions.

The industry also has an opportunity and responsibility to facilitate this change. Recognizing that we are all stakeholders in the health of our planet, it becomes clear that reducing resource and energy usage is not just an industry responsibility but a collective one. Understanding this relationship between consumption, waste, and environmental impact is crucial for effective e-waste management, starting with the consumer’s role in determining the fate of electronic waste.

Product Design

Bridging the gap between circular economy principles and consumer behavior can be achieved through behavioral insights, without significantly altering product lifecycle systems. Strategies should encourage product reuse and repair, extending product lifetimes during their use stage. Additionally, at a product’s end of life, behavioral interventions can motivate users for timely and proper disposal, improving e-waste management.

Product design and business models need to go beyond physical characteristics to include human consumption aspects. Users’ roles and the impacts of their actions in a circular economy are often overlooked in policy interventions. The European action plan for the Circular Economy (2015) mentions the need for public awareness campaigns to change behavior, but it falls short in addressing the knowledge-action gap and the psychological and social aspects of consumption. The WEEE and Eco-design Directives, key European interventions for electronic products, also fail to sufficiently involve end-users.

While everyday consumers are crucial, transitioning to a circular economy requires behavioral changes in structural factors. In addition to reuse, repair, and recycling, the circular economy envisages alternative models like access or product-service systems, focusing on fulfilling customer needs rather than selling more products.

There’s a disconnect between behavioral research and understanding the techno-sphere of electronic products’ lifecycles, posing a barrier in designing effective behavioral interventions. Integrating knowledge of behavioral elements and strategies with product lifecycle systems can lead to more impactful interventions, particularly in design aspects that promote product life extension and waste minimization.

Suggestion and conclusion

The International Telecommunication Union’s publication on Frontier Technologies highlights how digital technologies, if developed and deployed with societal and environmental impacts in mind, can significantly contribute to a more sustainable future. These technologies, despite being a growing source of energy consumption, hold the potential to enhance energy efficiency and contribute to a lower carbon future. Information Communication & Technology (ICT) stands at the forefront of addressing global climate challenges and is pivotal in the transition to a circular economy.

A novel approach to influence consumer behavior involves integrating an educational component into the startup and booting screens of electronic products. This feature would detail the environmental and health consequences of irresponsible e-waste disposal. Such an initiative would not only inform consumers but also encourage responsible behavior.

This educational piece should be seamlessly embedded in the product’s design, upholding the consumer’s right to be informed about the products they use and their environmental impact. By doing so, consumers are empowered to make informed decisions, effectively directing waste away from dumpsites to appropriate recycling facilities.

In conclusion, the ITU publication underscores the transformative role of digital technologies in achieving sustainable development goals. The integration of ICT in promoting a circular economy and the innovative design of electronic products to educate consumers represent key strategies in this endeavor. These initiatives align with the broader goal of environmentally conscious technology development and consumer empowerment in sustainable practices.

>>>the writer is Executive Director of Forum for Climate Action. He can be reached via [email protected] and or +233242568487/+233200081008

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